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Nikolas Kozloff

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Caracas Cables: Infiltrating the DEA, Expropriated Golf Course, Halliburton's Ties to Venezuelan Oil Company

Posted: 09/09/11 07:01 PM ET

For the past year or so, I've been writing steadily about WikiLeaks and U.S. diplomatic correspondence between various American embassies in Latin America and the State Department in Washington, D.C. For a full inventory of these pieces, you may head to my web site, which complements and further contextualizes my two books, Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left, and Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S.

It's a bit difficult for one person to stay on top of all the communication back and forth, and WikiLeaks' recent decision to place all of the remaining cables online has made the researchers' work even more of an uphill climb. In an effort to stay afloat, I decided to sift through many of these cables, taking note of intriguing, incendiary or just plain odd documents which may be worthy of further investigation. In coming weeks, I'll be publishing my own guide to the "Caracas cables" which may aid journalists, researchers or activists. In the interest of saving time, I've opted not to insert too much of my own commentary or analysis but have added in links to the original documents where useful.

"Ambivalent" Relationship on Drug War

As the political relationship deteriorated between the Bush administration and Chávez, so, too, did collaboration on the U.S.-sponsored drug war. Recently released cables document the testy and "ambivalent" dynamic, with U.S. ambassador William Brownfield commenting that Chávez's anti-drug czar Luis Correa appeared to be "penalizing" a non-governmental organization called Alianza "for having too close of a relationship with us."

Brownfield was rather suspicious of Correa, noting to his superiors that the Venezuelan was a professional intelligence officer. Before taking up his post heading up anti-drug efforts, Correa directed a technical unit that targeted the U.S. Mission. Correa was responsible for monitoring U.S. Embassy communications with teltap and cellular intercept equipment.

"Notches on Correa's belt" included turning a U.S. government informant and "penetrating an unclassified email system." Correa, Brownfield explained, directed a computer hacker who was able to obtain Embassy staff's e-mails and conducted surveillance of DEA agents, infiltrating the organization in the process and sabotaging equipment.

Not surprisingly, bilateral anti-drug cooperation almost hit rock bottom, and the only active joint project consisted of a port security project. After months of delay, the Venezuelans authorized U.S. officials to conduct an anti-drug training session. However, several no-shows failed to attend as they had become "apprehensive" about political persecution. Correa also snubbed the U.S. by refusing to attend the event, claiming that a Chávez coup plotter served on the board of directors of Alianza which sponsored the event.

Two years later, the situation had not improved much, with Venezuelan legislators accusing the U.S. of trying to make "colonial slaves" out of Latin American countries through its anti-drug policies. To what extent was Venezuela cooperating in seizing drugs? The director of Chávez's National anti-drug office, Néstor Reverol, claimed that Venezuela had the third highest rate of drug seizures in the world. However, a DEA attaché approached Reverol to "admonish" the official, claiming that Venezuelan drug seizures had been on a downward spiral over the previous three years, "while neighboring countries had shown steady increases in narcotics raids."

Golf Course Expropriation

On a more offbeat note, another cable deals with Chávez's feud with the affluent owners of local golf courses. For the Venezuelan president, golf was a "bourgeois sport" and golf courses took up much needed space which could be used for housing. In 2006, Caracas mayor Juan Barreto tried to seize control of the 18-hole course at the Caracas Country Club to build thousands of homes for the poor.

However, golf course owners believed that the government would more likely turn the properties into parks rather than housing units as the terrain was unsuitable for urban development. In addition, the owners thought that "most Venezuelans would rather belong to the Country Club than destroy it." In the final analysis, some observers believed that Barreto's actions might have backfired and actually cost Chávez some political support.

The issue was of direct concern to U.S. diplomats, as the government sought to expropriate land which lay within the American ambassador's future residence as well as another property leased by the U.S. government. After a legal battle, however, Barreto backed down from his golf course threat.

Halliburton in Venezuela

Recent WikiLeaks cables also touch on oil politics and U.S. oil services company Halliburton. According to the American Embassy, the Chávez government was suspicious of the firm, which had historic ties to Dick Cheney. For that reason, and coupled with the fact that Halliburton owed $300 million to Venezuelan state oil company PdVSA, company bigwigs feared that Chávez authorities might actually expropriate the firm's holdings in Venezuela. Overall, U.S. diplomats noted, the company "perceives itself as being a good political target."

In order to navigate tough financial straits, Halliburton was obliged to reduce its operations and fire staff. Meeting with Halliburton's Venezuelan President, PdVSA officials said they had no intention of expropriating the company. However, the authorities added, Halliburton should revamp its public image and might consider drafting a carefully worded letter to Chávez, in which the firm would offer to break with its past leadership and "connections with former U.S. government officials."

Though the American Embassy believed that Chávez policymakers were under-informed about Halliburton, and did not understand the full implications of expropriation and what the loss of the company would mean to the oil services sector, the government did not move against the firm. Perhaps, as in the case of the golf owners, the authorities guessed that for whatever reason, it would not pay to be confrontational in this particular case.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution: South America and the Rise of the New Left, and Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics and the Challenge to the U.S. Visit his web site, www.nikolaskozloff.com