LATE LAST YEAR, 16 U.S. congressmen voiced their approval for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Representatives Barney Frank, John Conyers, Chaka Fattah, Jan Schakowsky, Jose Serrano, and others complained in a letter to President Bush that the United States was not adequately protecting Chavez against a groundswell of internal opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule--an upsurge that might lead to his ouster. Elected to power in 1998, Lt. Col. Chavez has hijacked democracy in Venezuela and is openly moving the country toward totalitarianism. Beyond Venezuela's borders, he celebrates, protects, and does business with terrorists.
A day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Chavez declared that "The United States brought the attacks upon itself, for their arrogant imperialist foreign policy." Chavez also described the U.S. military response to bin Laden as "terrorism," claiming that he saw no difference between the invasion of Afghanistan and the September 11 terrorist attacks.
While the United States considers Saddam Hussein a threat to world peace, Chavez has hailed Saddam as his "brother" and business "partner." In the past two years Chavez has continued to cultivate relationships with the governments listed in the State Department's roll of state sponsors of terrorism--he has been particularly vocal in his support for the Iranian regime.
Last December a high-level Venezuelan military defector gave sworn testimony that terrorist links exist between al Qaeda and the Chavez government. The defector, President Chavez's personal pilot, alleges that one operation involved the transfer of close to $1 million in cash to Osama bin Laden.
In January, Judicial Watch, a public-interest legal organization based in Washington, filed a $100 million suit against Hugo Chavez on behalf of a victim and survivor of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The lawsuit alleges that Chavez provided material, financial, and other support and assistance to the al Qaeda terror network.
In February, a Venezuelan Muslim, Hasil Mohammed Rahaham-Alan, was detained in London's Gatwick airport for stashing a grenade in his luggage. He was apprehended after disembarking from a British Airways flight that originated in Caracas. The British Mail reported that al Qaeda operates a training camp on the Venezuelan island of Margarita. The Venezuelan ambassador in London has obtained a "legal stop" preventing the newspaper from commenting on the article.
Also, the congressional signatories turn a blind eye to mountains of hard evidence--most supplied by U.S. allies in the Colombian government--confirming Chavez's support for the FARC and ELN terrorist networks. The Colombian government declared that the head of the FARC terrorist group, Manual Marulanda, is hiding in Venezuela, and the Colombian embassy in Caracas was bombed a day after Chavez made a blistering speech attacking Colombia. The Financial Times reported last week that the perpetrators of the bombing may be FARC terrorists or even members of the Venezuelan secret police. Yesterday in Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton gave a press conference where he unequivocally stated that the Chavez government will not refer to the FARC Colombian terrorists as "terrorists," because the Chavez government wishes to remain "neutral."
It is unthinkable that congressmen who enjoy access to detailed intelligence reports are willing so blithely to disregard the Chavez government's track record on matters that directly affect the national security of the United States.
These congressional Democrats are not alone in their misguided support for Hugo Chavez. For years, Representative Cass Ballenger (R-NC) has had a bizarre relationship with Chavez. Ballenger has emphasized that the "Venezuelan Caucus" he established with Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) exists to "show friendship to President Chavez and to encourage him to embrace democracy." Ballenger and Hunt have embraced Chavez--and served as his U.S. tour guides. In return, Chavez has repeatedly used his friendship with the congressmen to prop himself up by showing strong support from and access to powerful members of the U.S. government.
To their credit, seven of the congressmen who wrote to President Bush have written another letter. On March 6 they wrote Chavez with some questions. They didn't ask about terrorism. Instead they inquired about the arrests and murders of members of the opposition to Chavez's rule. It's progress, of a sort. But we can do better.
Any congressional support of Chavez is particularly galling given that he is vocal about his loathing of the United States and American liberty. Yet unlike Chavez and his paid supporters, the great majority of Venezuelans have great affection for America and its freedoms. A recent Pew survey on "Global Attitudes" demonstrated that, although much of the world--and nearly all of South America--resents and despises America, Venezuelans rank among the greatest admirers of the United States and its people.
Congress should put President Chavez on notice that his dictatorial actions will not be tolerated It should also urge the Organization of American States to expel him, and impose immediate sanctions for his state sponsorship of terrorism. Any appeasement of Chavez sends a comforting message to the enemies of freedom. Additionally, it sends a dispiriting signal to the natural allies of the United States: the millions of Venezuelans who reject the grotesque tyranny of Hugo Chavez.
Thor Halvorssen is a human rights and civil liberties activist in Philadelphia. He grew up in Venezuela.