The U.S. will not designate Venezuela a terrorist state, the State Department’s top diplomat for the region told a Congressional hearing today. Instead, it will explore opportunities for dialog with President Hugo Chávez.
“President Chávez has expressed interest in improved relations with the United States,” said Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He said Chávez appeared to be reversing his previous policy stance toward the U.S. by offering to hold talks on drug interdiction and to hold meetings with the U.S. ambassador in Caracas.
Shannon is a respected career diplomat who served as political counselor in the U.S. embassy in Caracas in the late 1990s. He said Chávez has started to back down on his anti-western policies and rhetoric in recent months following a series of domestic and foreign policy setbacks.
In addition to taking a softer line toward the U.S., Chávez has also worked to improve relations with neighboring Colombia, where government officials accuse him of supporting left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Chávez has urged the FARC to lay down their arms; previously, he urged foreign governments to recognize the FARC as a legitimate resistance movement.
Congressmen at the hearing were concerned that Chávez would use Venezuela’s growing oil wealth to foment unrest and undermine U.S. interests in Latin America. Shannon downplayed this risk: “Venezuela has hit the limits of its international influence.” Other Latin American leaders, such as Brazil’s Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, are reasserting leadership in the region. Rivals such as Peru and Trinidad and Tobago are becoming important energy providers. Venezuela itself is facing trouble in its own oil sector, which is heavily dependent on the U.S. market.
The U.S. is encouraged, but wary, about Chávez’s offer to discuss drugs policy, Shannon said. He has previously refused to cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s efforts to stem cocaine exports through Venezuela, which has become a major drug export corridor. Drug shipments bound for the U.S. are routed through Venezuela to Haiti and the Dominican Republic; shipments for Europe are sent via fragile West African states.
Shannon said the U.S. will continue to carefully monitor Venezuela’s growing relationship with Iran. He also said Washington is studying targeted sanctions against individuals within Venezuela’s security and intelligence community who are suspected of acting as go-betweens with the FARC and Hezbollah, the Iranian-controlled Lebanese group.
Venezuela’s small Jewish community is concerned about the country’s relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. The community has shrunk by about one-third; Venezuelan police have raided Jewish schools. Shannon promised the U.S. government will remain in contact with the community and raise its concerns in meetings with Venezuelan officials.
However, he said there is insufficient evidence to brand Venezuela a terrorist country, as Washington has done with Syria and Iran. Instead, the U.S. would respond to Chávez’s initiative and see where it will lead.