When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez charged last month that the United States was developing plans to assassinate him, the U.S. State Department rejected the accusation as "wild."
Last week, Felix Rodriguez, a former CIA operative and prominent Bush supporter in south Florida, asserted in an interview with Miami's Channel 22 that the administration has "contingency plans."
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, shown here speaking in Paris, says the United States has plans to assassinate him. His supporters say televised remarks of a former CIA officer in Miami last week lend credence to his fears.
(Jack Guez - AFP/Getty Images)
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A video clip provided by Channel 22 shows host Maria Elvira Salazar pressing Rodriguez to be more specific. He says the plans "could be economic measures and even at some point military measures."
The pro-Chavez media jumped on the story. Venezuelanalysis.com, a leftist Web site, noted that Rodriguez had cited the Reagan administration's 1986 bombing raid on Libya that sought to kill Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi as an example. "If they are going to do it, they are going to do it openly," Rodriguez said.
Salazar denied the Venezuelan government's charge that the station was promoting assassination, according to Unionradio.net (in Spanish), the Web site of a Venezuelan radio network. Salazar said the accusation was "propaganda."
Nontheless, Rodriguez's remarks cannot be dismissed as bombast. He is well known in Latin America for his role advising a Bolivian military unit that captured and executed Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in 1967. He was well-connected with President Bush's father during his tenure both as president and vice president. The memory of various White House-approved, CIA-sponsored conspiracies to assassinate Fidel Castro in the 1960s may have faded in Washington but they have not been forgotten in Havana or Caracas.
Yesterday, El Espectador (in Spanish), a leading daily in Colombia, reported that Chavez has beefed up his personal security detail amid "fears for the president's safety."
The point is not that Washington is murderous or that Chavez is paranoid. The talk of assassination, whether idle or not, reflects the reality that the stakes are high in the power struggle between Chavez and the Bush administration. Six Latin American countries are now at odds with Washington politically. As The Washington Post's Kevin Sullivan put it earlier this week, Chavez is positioning himself as the "anti-Bush" of the hemisphere.
The international online media is full of signs that both sides are fortifying themselves for a fight.
"Bush Orders Policy to 'Contain' Chavez," reported the Financial Times (by subscription) on Sunday. Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs at the Department of Defense, told the London daily that President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had asked the Pentagon to help develop a strategy to "contain" Chavez.
"Chavez is a problem because he is clearly using his oil money and influence to introduce his conflictive style into the politics of other countries," Mr Pardo-Maurer said. "He's picking on the countries whose social fabric is the weakest. In some cases it's downright subversion."
"A tougher stance from the US already appears to be in the offing, a move likely to strain relations further," the FT reported.
In Venezuela, Pardo-Maurer's remarks were picked up by El Universal (in Spanish) and Tal Cual (in Spanish), two leading anti-Chavez news outlets in Caracas.
Another sign of Pentagon activism in Venezuela: Gen. Brantz Craddock, the chief of U.S. Southern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday that neighboring countries are worried about Venezuela's recent purchase of Russian rifles and helicopters. "We don't want an arms race in the region," Craddock said, according to a front page story in El Universal (in Spanish).
Venezuelan Army Commander Raúl Baudel brushed aside Craddock's concerns, insisting "Venezuela is pacifist" and asking the United States "to respect our decisions," according to another Venezuelan daily El Nacional (in Spanish).
The United States is especially worried about Chavez's so-called "Bolivarian Revolution" spreading to neighboring Bolivia. There a grass- roots social and political movement has shut the country down for weeks in an effort to force the government of President Carlos Mesa to dramatically raise taxes on foreign energy investors.
Evo Morales, the former coca grower who leads the opposition, denies that the Bolivian protests are funded or directed by Venezuela. But he does not hide his admiration for Chavez, according to La Cronica de Hoy (in Spanish), a leading daily in Mexico City.
"Chavez is not alone. He has the support of the Latin American people," Morales is quoted as saying. He also described Chavez as "one of the greatest leaders ever in the history of Bolivia."
Yesterday, the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies approved a smaller energy tax increase than the one supported by Morales, according to Bolpress.com (in Spanish), a leftist news site supportive of Bolivia's social movements. But the opposition says it will not lift its blockade of the country's highways until an even higher rate is approved.
That is the "conflictive style" that the Pentagon worries Chavez is spreading in Latin America, the style that Washington would like to "contain" before it spreads further.