The Latin Crisis

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

3/24/2008 12:50:44 PM - Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

This month Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez opened the next phase of his dangerous political career by nearly provoking a war with Colombia. In the aftermath of his military threats, the Colombian government learned disturbing information about the relationship between Mr. Chavez and the terrorist group FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

In light of those revelations, and their implications for U.S. national security, perhaps it is time the Bush administration placed Venezuela on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

On March 1, the Colombian military retaliated against numerous unprovoked FARC attacks in their territory and struck one of their clandestine camps — in Ecuador, killing one of the organization's top leaders. FARC, a formerly Soviet-backed insurgency, today makes a living off international kidnapping, drug trafficking and terrorism. It still holds hundreds of hostages for ransom, including American missionaries and a former Colombian presidential candidate. It has been designated as one of the world's leading terrorist organizations by the State Department.

In the days after the raid, Colombia uncovered e-mails in which FARC operatives reported, after meeting with Mr. Chavez, that significant financial support and even munitions would be forthcoming from the Chavez government. Evidence suggests Venezuela may have provided as much as $300 million to FARC since Mr. Chavez came to power.

If indeed Venezuela has provided money, weapons and other logistical or diplomatic support to FARC, it is guilty of supporting terrorism, a grievous violation of international law. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United Nations Security Council reaffirmed the obligation of all states to refrain from assisting terrorists or tolerating their presence inside the country. The United States does not distinguish between terrorists and those who harbor them and support them — and neither should any of our allies.

Venezuela must now be held accountable for its descent into a terrorist haven, and Ecuador should not protest when free countries, like Colombia, step across boundaries to protect innocent lives from plotting terrorists. On March 17, when the Organization of American States held its summit in Washington, it missed an opportunity to take a strong stand against terrorism and instead passed a resolution condemning Colombia's actions in self-defense.

While imposing additional sanctions on Venezuela could cause adverse short-term economic consequences, Mr. Chavez needs us more than we need him. Venezuelan oil has an extremely high-sulfur content, which requires special refineries to turn it into gasoline. Most of those refineries are in the Southern U.S. along the Gulf Coast. In short, Venezuela would have a very hard time finding other buyers if it loses its most important customer.

And with the increased willingness of Venezuela's military to stand up to Mr. Chavez — not to mention his sinking popularity among the public — the United States is one customer Mr. Chavez can't afford to lose.

Regardless of how events play out, the current diplomatic crisis in Latin America is just the latest evidence that the United States needs a strategic plan for energy independence — for both economic and national security reasons.

The U.S. imports around 11 percent of its oil from Venezuela, although that percentage has declined because of Mr. Chavez political abuse of Venezuela's oil industry, and his expulsion of American companies operating in the Orinoco Belt. Our nation's dependence on foreign energy lines the pockets of Mr. Chavez, and other despotic leaders, giving them the resources to export terrorism and disrupt stability in neighboring countries.

To reduce these despotic leaders' power, we should lift restrictions on domestic production of oil and gas in places like the desolate North Slope of Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf. In addition, we should expedite research into alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

Of course, there is something more important at stake than oil — namely, reducing the danger of terrorism. Mr. Chavez has made common cause with Iran, the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism. Mr. Chavez is one of the few leaders to publicly support Iran's nuclear weapons program, and the Iranian mullahs have rewarded Mr. Chavez's friendship with lucrative contracts, including the transfer of Iranian professionals and technologies to Venezuela.

Last year, Mr. Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revealed plans for a $2 billion joint fund, part of which will be used as a "mechanism for liberation" against U.S. allies. Now there is evidence Mr. Chavez actively supports FARC as part of a strategy to destabilize the Colombian government, which is one of America's best friends in the region. There seems to be no limit to Mr. Chavez's reckless and anti-American ambitions.

March 17, the OAS held its much-anticipated meeting in Washington. Going forward the United States should encourage fence sitters, such as Brazil, to stand behind Colombia and other victims of terrorism. By building a united front against Mr. Chavez's aggression, the United States has an excellent opportunity to strengthen our regional alliances, isolate Venezuela and renew our commitment to peace, prosperity and democracy in the Western Hemisphere.