It probably surprises no one to learn that American foreign and security policy, which ostensibly is dedicated to extirpating terrorists worldwide, is somewhat selective in practice. The US does nothing about Mujahedin e Khalq, Kurdistan Free Life Party, and Jundullah terrorists who kill people inside Iran while the assassination of a Hamas official by Israeli agents in Dubai on January 19th did not produce a peep of protest either from the State Department or White House. The US itself increasingly engages directly in death from the air through its expanded use of drones and there have been dark hints in some of the alternative media and even the New York Times that Delta Force and Blackwater assassination squads have been active in much of the third world ever since 9/11. Recent White House confirmation that even US citizens living abroad can be fair game for the drones and hit teams would seem to suggest that nothing is really off limits.
But it is not only the Israelis and our own unconventional warriors who get a free pass. Closer to home, selling large quantities of oil to the United States can make up for any number of transgressions. Controversial President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has certainly not been much of a friend to the United States, with some arguing that he has plenty of good reasons for his truculence. But even a gadfly politician who plays hard at being deliberately provocative can sometimes go too far. On March 1st Spanish Judge Eloy Velasco demanded that Venezuela respond to charges that it had materially assisted in a plot by terrorists from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Basque group ETA to kill the former president of Colombia Andres Pastrana, who resides in Spain. The plot was also reportedly expanded to include current Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as a potential target. The charges derive from a nearly two years long investigation that was started after documents were found on a laptop computer belonging to Raul Reyes, which was seized by Colombian soldiers during a raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador in March 2008. Six members of ETA and seven members of FARC were named in the list of charges by the Spanish judge. Most of them currently reside in Venezuela and Cuba and it is likely that the Spanish government will ask for their extradition based on charges of "conspiracy to commit terrorist acts." It should be noted that both FARC and ETA are considered to be terrorist groups by virtually every government in the world and they have, between them, killed thousands of people.
Caracas has denied the charges, calling them politically motivated, but has agreed to cooperate in the investigation, though that position subsequently hardened somewhat when Chavez held a press conference on March 3rd and said the Spanish claims were "irresponsible and rash" and part of an "intense, orchestrated attack (against Venezuela) headed by the US." He also said he had "nothing to explain" either to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero "or to anyone in the world." He subsequently tried on March 5th to bring the United States more directly into the argument by castigating Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for "sowing discord" through comments made during her recent tour of South America, but appeared to want to come to terms with the Spanish by indicating in the same speech that they were being reasonable in seeking only cooperation from Venezuela. On March 6th Venezuela and Spain issued a joint statement condemning all forms of terrorism in an attempt to minimize fallout from the inquiry, but the investigation will clearly continue.
The Spanish investigation could drag on for some time even if Madrid is careful not to rile Chavez unnecessarily. Spain is mindful of major investments it has in Venezuela but under the Spanish legal system the judge has considerable independence. The judge serves as an investigating magistrate, authorizing further inquiries if, in his judgment, there is sufficient evidence to justify proceeding and is frequently not shy about making public statements on investigations. Sources in Washington who have detailed knowledge of the investigation suggest that there is likely to be considerable new evidence contained in the charges made by judge Velasco when they are fully revealed, partly from documents that had not been made public from the lap top computer and partly from information developed during the ongoing investigation.
According to Judge Velasco, FARC was able to monitor the security and travel patterns at the Colombian Embassy in Madrid and concluded that it would be possible to kill Pastrana, who lives in Spain. They also targeted other Colombian senior officials for possible assassination, including Uribe. FARC was also believed to be in contact with ETA while the surveillance of the Embassy was taking place and it is believed that ETA might have assisted in the planning, though there is no hard evidence that that was the case. There is apparently documentary evidence that FARC was anticipating ETA help in an actual assassination attempt, which never took place.
The evidence of Venezuelan involvement is mostly circumstantial though the Spanish judge concluded that there is a case that "demonstrates Venezuelan government cooperation in the illicit collaboration between FARC and ETA." The judge was convinced of that likelihood because ETA member Arturo Cubillas Fontan was given what amounted to a non-job in the Venezuelan agriculture ministry in 2005, a position that he still holds. His Venezuelan wife is also an official in the Chavez government. Fontan is known to have been a key link between FARC and ETA after the two groups started cooperating in 1993. He had been in Venezuela since 1999 and, according to the laptop documents, had been in charge of ETA operations and the relationship with FARC, even when he was ostensibly working for the agriculture ministry. The relationship between the two groups included mutual training courses on explosives and urban guerrilla warfare. In one case that has been documented and confirmed by the Spanish, Venezuelan soldiers escorted ETA members to a training session with FARC held inside a remote jungle area inside Venezuela. Fontan was present at the training. According to the source, there is no actual evidence that Fontan collaborated directly with the Venezuelan government or its intelligence service to kill either Pastrana or Uribe, but both enabling a murder and conspiring with terrorists are crimes under Spanish and international law so it will not have to be proven that Venezuela was actually involved in the plan.
The Venezuelan agreement to cooperate with the Spanish authorities will likely mean that depositions will be taken and the Spanish judge will decide whether or not to proceed from that point. The case is a serious problem for Chavez as he has previously been plausibly linked to FARC and the implication that he might have been complicit in a conspiracy to kill a former and serving head of state from a neighboring country will not easily be dismissed as politically motivated. Other South American leaders have already begun to distance themselves from Chavez as a result.
The point of all this is to demonstrate that the charges of Venezuelan involvement with terrorist groups is credible. And to observe that the United States has said nothing about Hugo Chavez’s shady friends in spite of the fact that there is substantially more evidence suggesting that Venezuela fits the description of a "state sponsor of terrorism" far better than either Syria, Iran, or Sudan, all of which are on the list. Of course, they are Muslim nations, two are front line states confronting Israel, and none of them supplies oil to the US market. Venezuela, on the other hand, supplies 14% of the foreign oil imports that keep the US economy going. If the White House has its way, Venezuela will never appear on a designation list because it would restrict the flow of oil due to automatic sanctions that go with state sponsorship. A likely Venezuelan reaction to inclusion on the list would probably involve shifting oil sales to countries like China and India instead of to the US. The loss of Venezuelan imports could produce an oil shock that might devastate a struggling US economy.
Far from arguing from all of the above that Venezuela should be on a state sponsor of terrorism list, I would argue that no one should be on it. It is none of our business what Venezuela does or does not do if it does not directly threaten the United States. The State Department should not be in the business of making lists separating those who are really rogue from those who are less so. The state sponsor designation is little more than a bureaucratic exercise that is political in nature and serves no practical purpose. It identifies adversaries that must be punished for one reason or another while carefully avoiding nations like Israel that have the clout of a powerful domestic lobby or Venezuela that has a lot of oil to sell. It also conveniently ignores Washington’s own sponsorship of terrorist groups, particularly those focused on Iran. Unfortunately, it is a narrative that has been repeated over and over. Hypocrisy is deeply ingrained in American foreign and security policy, even when it comes to determining who is actually helping terrorists.