Time to defriend Hugo Chavez

Patrick Christy Policy Analyst, The Foreign Policy Initiative
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During his 13-year reign as Venezuela’s head of state, Hugo Chavez has expanded Venezuela’s ties with rogue states, protected terrorist organizations and actively undermined the rule of law throughout the Americas. Chavez is currently recovering from surgery in Cuba, but that isn’t stopping him from continuing to undermine critical U.S. interests. This week, news surfaced that Venezuela is preparing to send a tanker of much-needed diesel fuel — the third such shipment since November — to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The move is clearly designed to subvert international sanctions and replenish the Syrian government’s dwindling energy reserves. This comes at a time when the Assad regime is increasingly isolated on the world stage and has ramped up its violence against opposition forces. According to official reports, the nearly one-year-long struggle in Syria has already claimed over 7,500 lives. High-level United Nations officials say that members of the Assad regime are directly responsible for “gross human rights abuses,” and perhaps even crimes against humanity.

Chavez’s decision to prop up Assad shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, he has gone to great lengths in recent years to actively oppose U.S. interests. While Venezuela poses no direct military threat to the United States, three of the Venezuelan regime’s recent actions should raise red flags in Washington:

1.) Venezuela has expanded economic and strategic ties with Iran. Venezuela’s newfound relationship with Iran was on full display in February, when Chavez hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Caracas. In recent years, Chavez has vocally supported Tehran’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons. However, evidence suggests Chavez has gone beyond simple rhetoric, providing material support for Iran’s nuclear program. And in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, Ilan Berman said that the Venezuelan government has developed ties with Iranian proxy groups, opening the door for those groups to fundraise and train in Latin America.

2.) High-level Venezuelan government officials have actively supported and harbored members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an international terrorist organization. Over the past decade, much of FARC’s leadership has flocked to the friendly confines of Venezuela to evade the Colombian government. Yet evidence recovered by Colombian Special Forces in 2008 reveals a deeper relationship between Venezuelan government officials and the FARC leadership than was previously known, including government attempts to loan the terrorist organization millions of dollars and connect the group with an international arms dealer. The raid also revealed that FARC had anti-tank rocket launchers originally sold to the Venezuelan military by Sweden.

3.) Chavez continues to use fuel subsidies to prop up anti-American socialist leaders throughout Latin America, most notably in Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua. Cuba, for example, depends on Venezuela for two-thirds of its annual oil imports. Elsewhere, Venezuela’s efforts have undermined government institutions and directly threatened the hemisphere’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

These three points illustrate the extent to which Hugo Chavez will use his petrodollars to undermine U.S. security interests. Yet despite this dubious record, ties between Caracas and Washington remain largely unchanged. Venezuela remains the fourth-largest U.S. crude oil supplier, and while U.S imports of Venezuelan crude have decreased slightly in recent years, the U.S. still purchases 40 percent of the oil Venezuela exports.

So what can the United States do? Senator Richard Lugar and others have noted that the United States could reduce its dependence on Venezuelan oil through the Keystone XL pipeline. Upon completion, the pipeline could transport up to 900,000 barrels per day of Canadian heavy crude oil to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. As Senator Lugar recently wrote in The Miami Herald, “Ending our energy dependence on Venezuela would take the oil weapon out of Chavez’s hands, in effect disarming him without firing a shot.” Unfortunately, the Obama administration has denied the project’s permits.

Meanwhile, the killing spree in Syria continues. Hugo Chavez has chosen which side he will support. The question is, why does the United States continue to put up with such behavior?

Patrick Christy is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.