U.S. and Venezuela squabble
while trying to kiss and make up

Venezuela cops 59 tons of drugs in one year

By Gregory Wilpert

CARACAS, Venezuela — Despite recent verbal clashes between government officials of Venezuela and of the U.S., both Venezuela's ambassador to the U.S. and the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America both issued statements that tried to calm relations between the two countries.

Venezuela's Ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, sent a letter last Wednesday to U.S. Representative Elliot Engel, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, in which he criticized recent statements of U.S. officials with regard to Venezuela.

In the letter, Alvarez explained that at the same time that President Hugo Chavez was meeting with U.S. Congressman William Delahunt and agreeing to reestablish a dialogue with the U.S., U.S. officials were in Colombia making false claims about Venezuela's supposed support for drug trafficking.

These comments, "were disrespectful and false," said Alvarez, "casting doubt on the desire of certain sectors of the administration and the U.S. Congress to re-establish dialogue on issues that affect both of our countries. The comments also created confusion within the Venezuelan government and undermined the efforts many of us, including U.S. officials, have made to move dialogue between the two countries forward."

Alvarez went on to explain that even though Venezuela does not cooperate with the U.S. in its drug control activities, the Chavez government has cracked down on the illegal drug trade, as is demonstrated by the increasing volumes of drugs that have been confiscated in recent years, which reached 59 tons in 2005, an 88% increase over the prior year. Also, Venezuela has over 50 bilateral cooperation agreements on drug trafficking.

Venezuela suspended its cooperation agreement with the U.S. back in 2005 over complaints that the U.S. government was using the agreement to violate Venezuelan sovereignty and that its drug enforcement agents engaged in spying on Venezuela.

Similarly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, also appeared to try to calm the waters when he answered a question on Colombian radio yesterday, whether the diplomatic tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. could lead to an armed conflict.

Shannon said there is no possibility for such a conflict. "We don't see at the moment the possibility of any conflict between the two countries. On the contrary, I think that the two countries have such profound and important ties that their governments will look for a way to manage and control these kinds of problems," said Shannon on Radio Caracol.

The question was raised, though, because the verbal clashes between the two countries have recently intensified. Last week, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military, Adm. Michael Mullen said while on a visit to Colombia that the U.S. was very concerned about Venezuelan arms purchases. "They certainly are of great concern," Mullen said, about Venezuelan weapons, "not just to Colombia - which has been expressed to me - but to the region and in fact very much to the United States."

Mullen also said that he was concerned about Venezuela providing "strategic support" to Colombia's guerilla movements, without saying what he meant by that.

Shortly after Mullen's comments on Venezuela, John Walters, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), also in Colombia, criticized Venezuela's drug control policies, claiming that Venezuela has become a "safe haven" for drugs and that Venezuela has become a "major facilitator" of drug trafficking. "I think it is about time to face up to the fact that President Chavez is becoming a major facilitator of the transit of cocaine to Europe and other parts of this hemisphere," said Walters last week.

President Chavez, in referring to Mullen's and Walter's recent comments, said on his weekly television program last Sunday that these were part of a new "media offensive" of the U.S. and Colombian governments.

Venezuela's Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Jorge Valero, issued a complaint against the U.S. government during an OAS meeting that took place on Wednesday. According to Valero, Venezuela's anti-drug efforts were among the most successful in the region.

However, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is involved in interference in the region, which is why Venezuela refuses to cooperate with the DEA. The DEA "promotes the interference of the United States government in the internal affairs of other countries, using anti-drug cooperation as a pretext," said Valero. Venezuela thus reserves the right to pursue its own drug control policies, which it has done quite successfully.

The U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, Robert Manzanares, responded to Valero by saying, "It is difficult to understand how a country dedicated to fighting drug trafficking could simultaneously support FARC, carrying out a campaign to legitimize this group which has been rejected the world over."

Venezuela has recently called on Colombia to recognize the FARC as a "belligerent force" so as to facilitate peace negotiations and to put an end to Colombia's over 40-year civil war.