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Eric Ehrmann Headshot

The Fracas in Caracas

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Feeling a clear and present danger from Team Obama's new bases designed to contain the FARC from establishing a nation inside of Colombia, irascible Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is threatening retaliation and cutting off oil exports to his top customer, the United States.

While the move is reciprocity for tougher sanctions against Venezuela's nuclear trade partner, the Islamic Republic of Iran, it's a bigger gamble in the nonaligned tradition of late Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser since it tests the value of the platform Chavez provides Islamist nations to project political, cultural and anti-Zionist agendas in a South America still protected by the Monroe Doctrine.

This latest saber rattling, which included Venezuela breaking relations with Colombia, the world's largest producer of coca leaves, may help drive up oil and cocaine prices. But it's unlikely to gain support from the moderate faction in OPEC led by Saudi Arabia who have not been pleased with attempts by Chavez and Ahmadinejad to radicalize the cartel.

Increasingly dependent on oil revenues and Kremlin military aid to finance public safety programs that mediate the relative deprivation caused by the faiblesse of the Bolivarian economic model Venezuela could fall deeper into recession with the same rationing and food riots that brought Chavez to power now putting his leadership at risk. Even former guerrilla Douglas Bravo, the doyen of Venezuela's left who worked with Che and recruited Chavez into radical politics says his former pupil has lost credibility with the people who trusted him to bring positive change.

In a region where politics offers more drama than a telenovela the decade old issue of Chavez providing sanctuary for FARC rebels has become incontrovertibly linked to Venezuela's special relationship with another of its nuclear trade partners, Syria, that is being accelerated by new vice president and possible Chavez successor, Elias Jaua.

It was Jaua in a grey business suit, not Chavez in his red sweater, who met Syrian president Bashir Asad at Maiquetia airport last month to kick off talks on expanded military, economic and nuclear cooperation. And it was Jaua who presided over the National Defense Council last Thursday when it approved suspending relations with Colombia

With Damascus also emboldened by Kremlin military assistance and Chavez denouncing Israel as being "genocidal" the burgeoning alliance should remind resetniks of how their Tweetstream diplomacy and its truncated historical memory could quickly turn the Russian reset into a game of Russian roulette in South America, the Middle East and some oil rich Asian regions.

Jaua, at forty one, is the poster boy for the next gen nonaligned movement. Counting his time as a student leader who opposed the corrupt policies of US-backed president Carlos Andres Perez, vice president Jaua has been close to Chavismo for two decades. He was just thirty when Chavez tapped him as minister for cabinet affairs in 1999 and moved on to run the economy ministry in 2003. He took over as minister for agriculture and land reform in 2006, with the brief of cutting up big estates and distributing land to low income campesinos, a position he continues to hold as his nation's second in command.

Jaua was also one of the crafters of Venezuela's 1999 constitution along with Chavez friend and adviser, the rogue Argentine ideologue and member of the Soviet (now Russian) Academy of Sciences, Norberto Ceresole. Back in the 1960s, the Argentine filibuster worked with Lyndon Johnson's old nemesis Peruvian dictator Juan Velasco Alvarado and Henry Kissinger's bete-noire Dr. Salvador Allende in Chile. Ceresole's works critical of Zionism and denying the Holocaust have been published in Arabic, and Farsi (the language spoken in Iran) as well as in Spanish.

Jaua ran into problems in 2002, when Chavez appointed him as his ambassador to Argentina. The appointment was an attempt to stabilize relations with Chavismo's major ally in South America. According to reports in Clarin and La Nacion, the appointment of Jaua as Venezuela's ambassador to the Argentine Republic was rejected by Buenos Aires on the grounds that the appointee had maintained ties with, inter alia, left wing Argentine Peronist terrorists known as "montoneros" led by Mario Firmenich, who had migrated from the right wing Peronist youth group Tacuara (the spear) and the right wing military officer and golpista, Colonel Mohamed Ali Seineldin.

Affectionately called "el Turco," by his men, Seineldin is alleged to have converted from Islam to the Roman Catholic faith, participated in Argentina's "dirty war" and was a highly decorated hero in his nation's ill-fated Falklands campaign. He also served as a counterinsurgency consultant to Panamanian dictator and CIA asset Manuel Noriega and trained anti-leftist groups in Central America as part of the Iran-Contra arrangement run by Oliver North and funded in part by Saudi petrodollars. Seineldin was a confidant of Hugo Chavez and remained a supporter of Chavismo until his death in Argentina in 2005.

Charges that Chavez harbors FARC units inside Venezuela being trumped up by Colombia were first raised over a decade ago by University of Miami political scientist and consultant Bruce Bagley. The accusation game itself has been going on for more than half a century, ever since Colombian populist icon Jorge Gaitan claimed that Venezuelan leader Romulo Betancourt offered guns and money to start a revolution in Colombia. Ironically, Ronald Reagan later eulogized Betancourt as a great friend of the US and a cornerstone of democracy in Latin America. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's good friend, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, has been assigned by the Organization of American States to repair the break in relations between Venezuela and Colombia.

Unfortunately, the FARC part of the fracas has impacted the Brazilian presidential campaign. Neoconservative candidate Jose Serra and his running mate have recycled old charges linking president Lula's Workers Party with the FARC drawing fines from Brazil's electoral tribunal and causing cancellation of the nation's first internet presidential debate. And a US-style "swift boat" attack video linking Workers Party candidate Dilma Roussef with Colombian narcoterrorists was removed from YouTube. Dilma has also been fined by the electoral commission for propganda violations on non-related campaign matters.

The combined social graphs of Jaua and Chavez leave a big footprint at the intersection of petrodollars, narcodollars (and euros) and military clientism and a much smaller one at the crossroads of sound government and distribution of food and income to the marginalized poor. In public statements Chavez has equated the struggle of the FARC to create a nation with that of the Palestinian people. But within that context his friend Dr. Asad's prescription for controlling left wing extremism with nuclear politics and narcoterror as needed may not keep Chavismo from turning the Venice of South America into the Yemen of the Caribbean.

Around the Web

BBC News - Colombia recalls envoy from Venezuela amid rebel row

Colombia-Venezuela ties continue to fester - latimes.com

The Associated Press: Venezuela breaks ties with US-allied Colombia

Venezuela Warns Colombia Against Inciting a Conflict - NYTimes.com