By Juan Forero
Thursday, May 20, 2010; A09
MACHIQUES, VENEZUELA -- For two years, Colombian officials have accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of providing arms and sanctuary to Marxist rebels intent on toppling Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in a turbulent region.
Now, based on documents and witness testimony, Chávez is facing fresh accusations that his government has gone well beyond assisting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Documents seized from two subversive groups, along with information provided by former Colombian guerrillas, suggest that Venezuela facilitated training sessions here between the FARC and ETA, a separatist group in Spain that uses assassinations and bombings in its effort to win independence for the northern Basque region.
The evidence led Judge Eloy Velasco of the National Court in Madrid to level charges of terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder in March against a Chávez government official, Arturo Cubillas, and a dozen members of the FARC and ETA. Spanish authorities want Venezuela to extradite those accused, but so far the Chávez government has not responded to Velasco's international warrant.
The latest revelations, largely based on information collected by Spanish investigators in Colombia, Venezuela and France, prompted Arturo Valenzuela, the State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, to declare in a congressional hearing in March that the Obama administration is "extremely concerned" by the allegations.
With Chávez hamstrung by harsh economic conditions, some in the U.S. Congress worry that the Venezuelan president could increasingly radicalize and forge closer links with subversive organizations or nations such as Iran, Sudan and Belarus.
"As he gets more bogged down domestically by the natural consequences of capricious rule, we are likely to see more troubling relationships," Carl Meacham, senior aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said by phone from Washington.Chávez responds
The new spotlight on Venezuela's alleged links to subversives has been so uncomfortable to Chávez that he has warned that Spain's multibillion-dollar investments here could suffer. Critics in Venezuela have also been intimidated for speaking out about the FARC or ETA.
When Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, an opposition figure here, publicly expressed support for Velasco's investigation in a television interview, he was arrested and charged with spreading false information.
"This government does not endorse nor support any terrorist group," Chávez said in March soon after Velasco's indictment. "We have nothing to explain to anyone."
Chávez critics have long asserted that his government could be aiding groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. But this is the first time judicial authorities outside Colombia have leveled accusations that link Venezuela's government with terrorist groups.
"There is nothing like this in the world, showing support for organizations that are declared terrorist groups," said Gustavo de Arístegui, a Spanish commentator and author of the book "Against the West," which details the anti-Western stand of Chávez and his allies, including Cuba's Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Colombian authorities who have sifted through documents seized from three rebel commanders in 2008 and 2009 said they discovered that ETA operatives met with FARC guerrillas in rural camps from 2003 to 2008. Those camps were located outside Machiques, this cattle-raising town in Venezuela's northwestern Zulia state, as well as farther south in sparsely populated Apure state, according to Colombian government documents.
Colombian security service officials say ETA members taught bombmaking techniques to the explosives experts of at least five FARC units. Velasco, in his complaint, said that among those who facilitated the meetings in Venezuela was Cubillas, a Basque exile who had arrived in the country in 1989 and was absorbed by a small Basque community in Caracas. Cubillas, until recently an official in the state's National Land Institute, could not be reached for comment.Ex-guerrillas speak
Two former FARC guerrillas who disarmed and now live freely in Colombia said in interviews that they saw ETA operatives in FARC camps outside Machiques in 2008.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because they fear retribution for having cooperated with Colombian authorities, the former rebels described how Venezuelan military officers accompanied ETA operatives to the camps. The training, the rebels said, included how to build rockets and car bombs.
"They would talk about how they use them in Spain -- how they hid them under the cushions in cars," the older rebel, who is 23, said of the ETA explosives.
Colombian authorities said the FARC has in recent years begun activating car bombs with cellphones, a tactic long perfected by ETA. Authorities say they are also increasingly seeing remote-controlled land mines.
"The ramifications of this happening in territory we do not control is that the FARC increased its capacity to get new technology and modernize," said a high-ranking security services official in Colombia.
ETA benefited by taking advantage of Venezuela's isolated jungle camps to test weapons that could not be fired in Spain, said Florencio Domínguez, an expert on ETA in Bilbao, Spain. "They develop new tactics, new mechanisms, share experiences -- that's what ETA's terrorism entails, and it threatens the security of Spanish citizens," Domínguez said.
Velasco's criminal complaint also alleges that the FARC asked ETA to assassinate prominent Colombians in Spain. No one was killed, but the targets included President Uribe and Antanas Mockus, a former Bogota mayor now running for president in Colombia.
Colombian and Spanish authorities say that among those ETA closely tracked in Spain was former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana, who lived in Madrid for more than three years after he left office in 2002.
"President Chávez needs to give us an explanation of what happened," said Pastrana, who now lives in Bogota. "I left Colombia because of security, and now I learn that I was a target of ETA."