Saturday, May 20, 2006

“Cuban intelligence has effectively cloned itself inside Venezuelan intelligence,” Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told editors and reporters at the Washington Times. Mr. Shannon was also concerned about the nature of the intelligence relationship that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wants with Iran. If this were not disconcerting enough, Venezuela is also providing shelter for organizations with ties to unspecified “terrorist organizations in the Middle East.” Reports suggest that Hezbollah is one of those unspecified organizations.

The State Department announcement last week that Venezuela would be designated a country that is not fully cooperating with efforts against terrorism makes it the only country so designated that is not also on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This designation, which was met by characteristically absurd responses from Venezuelan officials, is not a first step toward the designation of a state as a sponsor of terror (which is a designation not reached through a step-by-step process). The designation does mean, however, that Venezuela is banned from purchasing U.S. weapons.

In addition to troubling connections with Iran, Venezuela has also developed a “more structured relationship” with the FARC and the ELN, two Colombian guerrilla groups classified as terrorist organizations by the State Department. Mr. Chavez has for some time, because of his ideological sympathies, granted guerrillas from both groups safe haven on his side of the Venezuela-Colombia border. But Mr. Shannon noted that more of the growing number of weapons brought across the border were from stockpiles maintained by the Venezuelan government, and that Venezuelan officials must have been involved in some stage of the trafficking.

Mr. Chavez’s overblown anti-American agitprop is of little concern to Washington, which should not be drawn into a conflict that the authoritarian firebrand is able to wage on his own terms. The Venezuelan president should not be allowed to become the focal point of U.S. policy, but while turning a deaf ear toward Mr. Chavez’s demagoguery is a good practice, turning a blind eye to his country’s practice of harboring groups with ties to terrorist organizations is not. The State Department’s announcement should be a message that Venezuela’s behavior is more than unsavory.

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