02 febrero 2008

General Fortifies Venezuela Against the U.S.

Por Amar C. Bakshi

President Hugo Chavez left it to his comrade and friend, General Raul Baduel, to defend Venezuela against external threats – especially threats from the United States.

General Baduel did just that: he achieved legendary status within Chavez's administration in April of that year for thwarting an attempted coup, which both men claim the U.S. government had a hand in (though the U.S. denies this). Baduel says while the coup unfolded, American boats entered Venezuela's waters and U.S. helicopters ran routes in its airspace. He could monitor them "with the same radars the U.S. used to monitor drug trafficking." Baduel’s actions saved Chavez’s regime and kept him in power.

Five years later, Baduel turned against Chavez and his administration. He retired last year from his post as Defense Minister and shocked Venezuela by publicly denouncing Chavez's constitutional referendum, dubbing it another "coup" to consolidate his power and undermine democracy. But even out of military uniform and away from official rhetoric, Baduel still harbors suspicions about the role of the U.S. government in his country.

I meet retired General Baduel in his office overlooking Caracas. Gregorian chants play in the background. He offers me coffee mixed with a brown liquid poured from a plastic jug. It contains an "Amazonian elixir" made of jungle root, he says, along with grappa, whisky, sake, and three indigenous liquors. He sips it, discussing Taoism, laughing often, and flipping through books like Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."

"I myself always had a positive attitude toward the United States," he says. His father worked for the American-owned Shell oil company, which treated him fine, he says. And when, as a parachuter in the army Baduel turned to leftist politics, holding hands with Hugo Chavez in 1982 vowing to “deepen democracy” in their country, he says anti-Imperialist, anti-U.S. discussion almost never arose.

After Chavez's failed coup in 1992 (which Baduel denies any role in), army superiors wanting to cleanse Baduel of left-leaning sympathies sent him to the School of the Americas in Georgia, USA. He knew the school’s reputation for supporting various unsavory organizations throughout Latin America this past century, but says he had “a wonderful time” at Fort Benning. It was not until the 2002 coup that he changed his mind fundamentally about the U.S. government.

Fresh out of uniform, he's now free to speak for the first time. So I ask: What really are the threats facing Venezuela? How much of a role does the U.S. play in these threats? How much is just rhetoric?

He outlines four scenarios, speaking slowly, carefully, not wanting to exacerbate tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. He implies America's potential involvement in each one with little nods, rarely words.

Threat 1) A Fourth Generation War: This asymmetrical confrontation is fought "through the media, technology, and economic sabotage." It is a psychological war.

Threat 2) A coup, or instability leading to a coup: Though its origin would be domestic, it could be exploited by external actors, he claims, such as the U.S. in 2002.

Threat 3) Regional conflict: Foreign powers could use the presence of rebel groups hiding out in Venezuela as a pretense to initiate hostilities against Venezuela.

Threat 4) Invasion: Full scale military confrontation between two armies is possible, Baduel says, though unlikely.

Of all potential threats, Baduel says the third possibility of regional conflict looms largest, especially as the U.S. and Colombia differ with Chavez on whether or not the Colombian rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are terrorists or not.

Baduel says a huge infusion of cash from the U.S. to Colombia under "Plan Colombia" poses a threat to Venezuela. The Plan gave hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment to Colombia in 1999, officially to strengthen their anti-narcotics work, but Venezuelans and others claim there's no way to ensure this money isn't being used against the FARC.

As FARC rebels seek refuge across the porous border with Venezuela, mixed messages from Chavez could lead to confrontation between the U.S.-backed Colombian military, and Venezuela's, says Baduel. "Venezuela's military is confused. So in the case they [the FARC] come to Venezuela now, what will the guidelines be for the army?" And how will Colombia and the U.S. react if Venezuela doesn’t move on the FARC?

Venezuela is on edge now, more than it's ever been, and Baduel says Chavez is purposely making things worse. "I feel that the intention of Chavez with this [confrontational tone with Colombia and the U.S.] is to try to provoke action and conflict. He wants to reinvent himself after losing [the referendum in] 2007….He is very irresponsible to do this for the sake of [his] personal interests."

In the past few days, Chavez has unleashed a war of words against Colombia and its American supporters, exacerbating the tensions.

With chants in the background, sipping his tea, Baduel says these tensions must be relaxed. Slowly he says he chooses his word with care.


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