Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mind the Gap: Reinstituting Counternarcotics Cooperation with Venezuela

The GAO’s recent report U.S. Counternarcotics Cooperation with Venezuela Has Declined provides a nuts and bolts breakdown of how U.S. counternarcotics programs operate abroad – and how the Venezuelan government is refusing to cooperate on many of these crucial programs. Because of its strategic location next to Colombia, which has long been at the heart of the international drug trade, and because of the extensive connections between drugs and terrorism, improving counternarcotics cooperation with Venezuela is a small but important issue.

The report primarily blames Venezuelan corruption for the drug trafficking, which combined with the reduced U.S. role has led to Venezuela becoming a major hub for narco-trafficking. Despite the cooling U.S.-Venezuelan relationship, the counternarcotics cooperation was strong between 2002 and 2005. But in July 2005 Chavez accused the DEA of spying and cooperation began falling apart. In September of that year, for the first time, the U.S. President designated Venezuela as failing to meet its counternarcotics obligations. The programs that have suffered are items such as intelligence gathering and sharing initiatives, logistical support for an elite task force of three-dozen Venezuelan prosecutors and investigators, and port and border control programs.

Accurate measures of illicit activity like drug trafficking are not possible, but there is little question that that Venezuela has become a major transit point for drugs – particularly the burgeoning drug traffic heading towards Europe. The growth of Venezuela’s role in drug trafficking is very bad in its own right, but it has also thrown a lifeline to the FARC, which has been devastated by the Colombian military next door. Finally, illicit activity is a highway for terrorists and other trans-national malefactors. Improved U.S.-Venezuelan counternarcotics cooperation would be an important step to reducing some of these problems.

President Obama has explicitly stated that he hopes to improve America’s image in the world and to that end he publicly shook hands with his predecessor’s hemispheric nemesis, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Translating good feelings into pragmatic benefits is another matter entirely, but an excellent objective would be to restore – as much as possible – U.S.-Venezuelan counternarcotics cooperation.

None of this is too ignore the multiple other issues in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, particularly the deteriorating human rights situation in Venezuela (although Chavez's bid for regional power may go into remission if oil prices remain relatively low), but counter-narcotics cooperation is a low-level security issue that can have big consequences.

In Hugo’s Court
Venezuela’s President derives tremendous political capital from kicking the United States. Wisely, the U.S. generally chooses not to rise to his bait. Even the very sober GAO report (commissioned by the Sen. Richard Lugar, a well-respected voice on foreign affairs) was quickly denounced by Chavez, who stated, “The U.S. is the biggest drug trafficking country on the planet.”

The Chavez regime’s relationship with narcotics trafficking and the FARC is not completely clear. Much of it is shaped not by a grand plan but by corruption and by Chavez’s own erratic behavior (such as threatening to kick out the DEA for spying.)

According to the GAO, Venezuelan officials would be interested in resuming cooperation with the United States, and on some issues cooperation has continued. However, persuading Chavez to sign on, when he derives so much benefit from bashing the U.S., will not be easy. Obviously the general improvement in international feelings towards the United States under President Obama is helpful – but it will not be enough.

The U.S. can also approach European allies who have begun to suffer from increased drug trafficking originating in Venezuela. Spain, who’s prime minister has a friendly relationship with Chavez, would be a particularly useful go-between.

A bit of public diplomacy would also be helpful. During Chavez’s presidency, Venezuela’s crime rate has skyrocketed. Chavez’s home province of Barinas has become the kidnapping capital of the hemisphere. Publicizing the American desire to cooperate with Venezuela against crime would force the issue on Chavez. The American pitch would have to be tailored just right – more in sadness than in anger. A humble America that recognizes its role in fueling narcotics trafficking around the world only seeks to aid the countries that suffer from it. This appeal would put the ball in Hugo’s court.

Shouting matches only play to Chavez’s strengths as a charismatic speaker. A self-effacing approach might leave him speechless, and fill a real gap in hemispheric security.

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