Chavez accused of ties to terrorists

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Venezuela has allowed its intelligence service to become a clone of Cuba’s while it shelters groups with ties to Middle East terrorists and allows weapons from its official stockpiles to reach Colombian guerrillas, a senior U.S. official said yesterday.

Those were the principal reasons why the Bush administration blacklisted Venezuela on Monday, saying it has failed to fully cooperate on counterterrorism, Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“It’s our hope now that we’ve gotten their attention,” he said of the Venezuelans, who are banned from purchasing U.S. weapons because of the listing. “We hope that we are going to be in a position where we can talk with them and look for how we can improve [our] cooperation.”

An immediate impact of the decision is that Venezuela will be unable to buy spare parts from the United States to maintain its aging fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets. A senior military adviser to President Hugo Chavez said yesterday that Venezuela might now sell the planes to another country, possibly Iran.

It was not clear what Iran might do with the planes, because it is also subject to U.S. sanctions.

The United States stopped selling Venezuela sensitive upgrades for the F-16s even before the latest action, which Mr. Shannon described as “regrettable.”

“This is actually an issue we’ve been wrestling with for quite some time,” Mr. Shannon said. “We did this with a lot of reluctance, because we really want to find a way to work with them and improve our cooperation, but they are just unprepared and unwilling.”

The U.S. official said that in dealing with Mr. Chavez, “the purpose is not just to ignore him,” he said. “The purpose is not to allow him to define the terms of the confrontation and to make sure that as we engage with him, we are not doing so in a way that harms our larger interests.

“It would be a mistake for U.S. foreign policy in the region to overly concentrate on the guy,” Mr. Shannon said. “If we allow ourselves to get trapped in the kind of confrontation that he wants to have with us, it lessens our influence with others in the region.”

He said the administration could no longer certify that Venezuela was cooperating on counterterrorism because of its close ties with Cuba and Iran, both of which Washington considers state sponsors of terrorism.

“Cuban intelligence has effectively cloned itself inside Venezuelan intelligence to the point that [our] ability to cooperate and have a relationship with Venezuela on the intelligence side is very difficult,” Mr. Shannon said.

“We are worried about the kind of relationship [Mr. Chavez] wants to have with Iran on the intelligence side,” he added.

Mr. Shannon, a career diplomat serving in a post usually held by a political appointee, also expressed concern about “groups and individuals” in Venezuela with “links to terrorist organizations in the Middle East.”

He declined to be more specific, but U.S. military officials have in the past noted the presence in Latin America of groups linked to Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization.

In addition, he said, “the western part of Venezuela has always been a wild place,” and members of Colombian guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] and the National Liberation Army [ELN] have “moved with a certain amount of ease.”

“But over time, we’ve seen what appears to be a more structured relationship,” he said. “There appears to be more movement of weapons across the frontier into Colombia, and some of it comes from official Venezuelan stockpiles, and it almost certainly involves the participation of Venezuelan officials, either corrupted or not.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez accused the Bush administration yesterday of climbing to “new heights of cynicism and shamelessness” with its Monday decision on arms sales

“Behind its despicable accusations is a useless campaign of shame designed to isolate Venezuela, destabilize its democratic government and prepare the political conditions for an attack,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

Mr. Shannon, speaking broadly about Mr. Chavez’s influence in the region, said he seems popular at the moment because he is “awash” in oil money.

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