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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Speak of the Devil: Chavez as Terror Master

By Aaron Mannes

Although Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has never had as large an audience as he did earlier this week at the UN, he regularly gives bizarre grandiose speeches with eschatological overtones. In August he gave an interview to al-Jazeera in which he said the way to the Kingdom of Heaven is to create a multi-polar world. In his Christmas Eve speech last year he called for building Utopia on earth.

Perhaps nothing highlights how bizarre Chavez can be than this joint press conference he gave with Iran’s President. Ahmadinejad is no slouch in the international rabble-rousing department, but here he comes off as quite sober compared to the voluble Chavez.

It would be easy to dismiss Chavez as a buffoon. But he has substantial resources. Riding high on inflated oil prices (his government’s mismanagement of Venezuela’s oil industry has been an important contributing factor to high oil prices) Chavez has been buying influence throughout Latin America with cheap oil and cash. He is funding Telesur, a Latin American satellite TV network, nicknamed “La Jazeera” to distribute the message of the global south. He is also keeping his mentor Castro’s Cuba afloat with grants of cash and fuel, and he is buying expensive weapons. But he also has another tool of regional influence – a major terrorist ally.

Next door, the Columbian government has begun to turn the tide against the narco-terrorist FARC. In the 1990s the Columbian government engaged the FARC in a peace process that gave FARC a Switzerland sized area within Columbia as a safe haven. In 2002 Alvaro Uribe, who campaigned promising to restore internal security, was elected President of Columbia. Given the opportunity, the Columbian military quickly pushed the FARC from its bases. Terrorists and insurgencies, no matter how wealthy, need land to operate. Threatened by the Colombian military, the FARC, a classic far-left insurgency, turned to Hugo Chavez, their ideological ally, for help. Chavez doesn’t give them money – FARC is so heavily involved in the drug trade – money is the least of their concerns. Chavez has allowed the FARC to use the Venezuela-Columbia border zone as a safe haven.

The FARC has formidable capabilities and tendrils throughout the region. The FARC has been linked to the 2005 kidnapping and murder of the daughter of Paraguay’s former President, and to the recent resurgence of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Most significantly, the FARC transports tons of cocaine to the United States annually.

As the FARC allies more closely with Chavez and becomes more dependent on him, it could become a tool of his policies. Further, as Chavez tacks closer to Iran (the leading sponsor of Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist groups) the FARC may expand its links to Middle Eastern terrorists – particularly Hezbollah and Iran’s Palestinian proxies. At the same time, if they become less able to conduct insurgent tactics in the Columbian countryside they may come to rely more heavily on bombings and urban terror attacks.

In evaluating terrorist groups it is important to look at both ambitions and capabilities. It is not certain that FARC desires to turn to international terror or targeting the U.S. homeland (they have already targeted Americans in Columbia). But there is little doubt that it has the capability. However, equally dangerous is the possibility that the FARC’s skills and resources will be used to facilitate Middle Eastern terrorists.
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