COHA Opinion: Drug Wars: Bush Launches Attack on Venezuelan Anti-drug Efforts

  • Scandalous absence of any evidence justifying U.S. charge
  • While many in Washington were still choking on the sulfurous fog seeping down from New York, the White House’s extraordinarily inappropriate report condemning Venezuela for failing “demonstrably” to meet international counter-narcotics agreements quietly slipped past the attention of the media, as well as the general public. The drug report, an alarmingly tendentious document relying on misleading evidence and innuendo, is little more than a deeply politicized anti-Hugo Chávez treatise than a professional inventory of Venezuelan drug policy. In other words, it is little better than a bogus indictment of a country where anti-drug performance falls well within the middle range of Latin American nations.

    The Presidential Determination on Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries, released September 15, purports to show that Venezuela and Burma stand out amongst the 23 nations identified as problem countries, and merit their own unique category of being “demonstrated” failures. Venezuela, in particular, has displayed a “continued lack of action against drug trafficking within and through its borders,” according to the presidential statement. The question that this report poses is whether a compelling case that reflects the integrity of the anti-drug process in fact exists, or whether the White House issuance is nothing more than a manufactured rant meant to defend a previously decided thesis with spurious data.

    When asked to provide evidence for their charges, the State Department’s Office of the Americas Program, Bureau of International Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs sent a newspaper article which cites a handful of corrupt Venezuelan officials who have helped rather than hindered drug flow from the South. The report irresponsibly points to an example taken from the right-wing and virulently anti-Chávez daily 2001, a Caracas newspaper noted for its highly controversial inside reportage on the 2002 coup. The July 2001 article notes that several policemen in Guacara, Carabobo, seized and re-sold nearly 8,000 kilograms of cocaine. The Bush document also fails to note that 1,500 kilos of the seizure were incinerated.

    Texas: The Drug Capitol of North America?
    The Bush administration’s drug researchers found in their scarcely more than one page of analysis – in a truly dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter fashion – that this one specific example can be extrapolated to establish a general rule of corruption throughout the Venezuelan anti-drug enforcement network. Had the Bush researchers applied such bizarre reasoning to a strikingly similar case here in the U.S., they would have been surprised to find that the president’s own home state too “fails demonstrably” in international counter-narcotics efforts. On September 21, a former police officer also facing drug charges managed to escape from the East Hidalgo Detention Center in La Villa, Texas. But of course no one would seriously suggest that this single corrupt man, and perhaps a few bad seeds in the facility who may have conspired with him, could possibly reflect the status of the prevailing drug policy for the entire nation. And neither does the Guacara scandal, nor any other of the highly exiguous evidence cited here, justify condemnation of the Venezuelan government.

    Fact Check: Corrupt Officials Already Caught
    Setting aside the fact that this form of reasoning is an absurd fallacy of converse accident, White House researchers failed to follow up with what actually happened in their Carabobo example, which was apparently the major piece of evidence used in the case against Venezuela. A quick fact check would have proved that Venezuelan officials have in fact followed up on this case. Since July, two police officers have been detained for their alleged involvement. The Attorney General of the State of Carabobo, Delia Pacheco, is actively leading an investigation into whether anyone else is implicated in the crime. For a nation supposedly “enabling and exploiting” drug traffic, this highly publicized crackdown by Venezuelan authorities seems an odd choice.

    Political Smokescreen
    Rather than offer additional statistics to bolster this thin gruel of condemnation, the Bush report then changes topic, with the administration’s drug researchers attempting to support their claim by raising questions of the state of Venezuelan democracy. The Bush researchers now move on to ideological grandstanding. They write: “The United States is very concerned about the continued deterioration of democratic institutions in Venezuela as reflected in the increased executive control over the other branches of government, threats to judicial independence and human rights, and attacks on press freedoms and freedoms of expression.”

    There are many responses to such a statement. One could argue from a factual standpoint that the situation in Venezuela is far better than the White House’s bleak assessment. Chávez was, in fact, elected democratically and is, by a massive margin, quite likely to be reelected in December. The Venezuelan media, which chronically complains of a lack of freedom in the country are largely run by Chávez’s political opposition, and the mere fact that they can grumble loudly says something of their freedom. While executive control has indeed increased over the Venezuelan courts – although no more so than in Washington-allied Colombia – few can point to concrete evidence of any presidential wrong-doing.

    Irrelevant Political Tactic
    A discussion of democracy in a report supposedly proving that Chávez’s government has “failed” in the war on drugs is an utterly irrelevant political tactic focused more on fabricating a case against the Venezuelan president than generating authentic proof that Caracas sanctions narcotics trafficking. And in fact, that is what this document essentially does. It was released at the zenith of Caracas-Washington tensions over the upcoming UN General Assembly vote on the non-permanent Latin American seat on the Security Council. In its own way, the Bush report seeks retribution for Chávez’s over-the-top, “Mr. Danger,” sulfurous fumes, “ruler of the world” rhetoric that has long characterized the Manichaean relationship between the two leaders.

    Behind the Hype
    Behind the name-calling and the apocryphal report lurks a strained relationship between Washington and Caracas. Cooperation between the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and its Venezuelan counterpart has dramatically deteriorated over the past two years, due less to acts of violation by the DEA than to the White House’s determination to defame Chávez’s rule in Venezuela. Starting back in 2005, Chávez began to oust DEA inspectors from his country, accusing them of using their privileged position to spy on his government. Bush responded by labeling Venezuela as “failing demonstrably” in its anti-drug war in the 2006 fiscal year report. The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington has released a statement that its government was willing to renegotiate an agreement with the DEA: that is, before the 2007 fiscal year report defaming Presidential Determination came out on September 15.

    It is worth noting that the White House’s assessment is not shared elsewhere in Washington. The State Department’s 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, released in March, suggests that Venezuela’s drug seizures have improved since 2004. The same agency also released a favorable report in 2005, which stated that between 1998 and 2004 – the period in which, coincidentally, Chávez was in office – Venezuelan drug seizures actually rose from 8.6 tons to 19.07 tons. This year alone, Venezuela has confiscated 35.6 tons of illicit drugs. Based on numbers rather than Bush administration hype, Venezuela is quite clearly doing better than Bush’s political report suggests.

    What about Mexico and Colombia?
    In the contest for the worst drug trafficking country in the South, two top contenders were conveniently left out of the Bush administration’s report. Neither Mexico nor Colombia even came close to being rewarded with the apogee of condemnation that was poured on Venezuela. Considering the standards applied to Venezuela, Mexico should receive the most damning indictment. Over the years, Mexico’s lame anti-drug war has repeatedly provided fertile grounds for criticism — the head of their DEA equivalent was arrested for drug trafficking and, in one infamous incident, the Mexican police fought a pitched battle against the military over the possession of drugs. Under the pressure of serving as a logical layover between Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer, and the U.S., the world’s largest drug consumer, Venezuela is playing a relatively praiseworthy role in its counter-narcotics efforts.

    The Bush administration would be factually more accurate in condemning Colombia and Mexico in not doing their part in fully cooperating in the war against drugs. But a largely baseless report stemming from scandalously scant evidence and driven more by ideology than fact, would have been better left unwritten.