Venezuela: a Launch Pad for Muslim Extremism?
Like some other CounterPunchers I am not at all shocked by Pat Robertson’s call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. I’m merely intrigued to find that the reverend butthead’s contumely has reached such proportions that he actually believes he can sermonize such fascist shit without taking any consequences. His initial response to the outcry, issued from the 700 Club pulpit, was to depict himself as a victim. He blamed AP for misrepresenting his comments ("But that happens all the time") and insisted that his fatwa to "take out" the twice-elected Chavez could mean mere kidnapping. Presumably this would be the more Christian option. But his initial unambiguous statement was rebroadcast endlessly. "If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it." Confronted with the proof, he had to retract, although in a written statement to the press, not in a homily to his flock.
I agree with those who find in this episode excellent exposure of the murderous mentality pervading the power elite, historically complicit in the offings of Lumumba, Diem, Allende, and many other foreign leaders. (This elite includes the clerical component sprinkling holy water on homicide.) Some good may come out of it, including perhaps a questioning of Robertson’s judgment within his own congregation, which must include some who take the sixth commandment seriously.
I’m intrigued, too, by the specific rationale Mullah Pat presents for taking out the populist Venezuelan leader: "He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he’s going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent." The grammar is odd, and if the sentence is interpreted literally suggests that the destruction of the Venezuelan economy somehow abets the two (highly contradictory) processes of communist and Muslim advances in South America. That’s just stupid on the face of it. For one thing, the Venezuela GDP grew by 17% in 2004, as oil revenues were used to improve the lot of the nation’s poor. But facts don’t matter to Robertson and his political allies. The point is to link several discrete phenomena either opposed to corporate America or frightening to Bush’s fundamentalist base in order to build a case for an attack on yet another country. Chavez = threats to the U.S. oil supply = communist "infiltration" = Muslim extremism.
Administration officials (John Bolton conspicuous among them) have been red-baiting Chavez for a long time, noting validly enough that he has a close relationship with Fidel Castro and has traded cheap oil for the nefarious commodity of cheap medical care provided by Cuban or Cuban-trained physicians to Venezuela’s poor. (Wasn’t it Bolton who insisted in May 2002 that Cuba’s advanced biotech- and genetic-engineering programs, which provide medicines and vaccines at small cost to many Third World countries, are threatening to the U.S. because of their "dual-use" potential for "offensive biological warfare"?) It’s not surprising that Robertson would damn Chavez for his links to Cuba, a country that Washington officially defines as "terrorist," or raise the specter of an angry caudillo denying Americans the oil God buried in those Venezuelan oilfields for Yankee use. It’s the "Muslim extremism" part that just slightly raises my eyebrows.
Venezuela, 96% Catholic, 2% Protestant, has few Muslims to speak of. But since late 2003, the mainstream press has been reporting that U.S. intelligence has been investigating links between Caracas and "Islamic terrorist networks" including "al-Qaeda suicide bombers." It appears that the key journalist in such reportage is Martin Arostegui, a free-lance writer, author of the poorly-reviewed book Twilight Warriors: Inside the World’s Special Forces, and contributor to the National Review, Washington Times and its weekly Insight Magazine. Some of his pieces have been reprinted in the Economist and the Sunday Telegraph. Even among his conservative colleagues, he has a reputation of playing fast and loose with the facts, whether they concern Cuba’s alleged bioweapons program, the La Penca bombing in Nicaragua in 1984, or a meeting between Mohammed Atta and Cuban undercover agents in the U.S. in 2001. He’s plainly a writer on a mission, with a clear project: to link both Venezuela and Cuba to 9-11 and Islamist terrorism and thereby augment traditional hostility to the Latin American left with post-9-11 fear of Arabs.
Google-searching "Martin Arostegui," I find an exciting Insight piece dated November 9, 2001: "Fidel May Be Part of Terror Campaign." Following the arrest of Defense Intelligence Agency employee Ana Belen Montes on the charge of spying for Cuba, the author reports that it "raises serious questions about a possible Cuban connection with the international terrorist conspiracy targeting the United States." He refers to "high-level officials of Cuba’s biological-warfare program who allegedly spoke with Atta at a Miami motel." (Alleged by whom?) "Exchanges between bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network and Cuban intelligence also could involve the provision of weaponized biological strains produced by Cuba’s extensive chemical/biological warfare facilities exposed by Insight three years ago."
Exposed by whom? Why, Arostegui!
In several articles he has tried to present "evidence pointing to Castro’s involvement with the introduction of West Nile virus into the U.S. via migratory birds." In a September 2002 piece accusing Castro of using biochemical weapons in Angola, he also alludes facily to Cuba’s "possible involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks."
In what looks like a piece of pure disinformation, a UPI "analysis" by Arostegui published Sept. 1, 2003 noted that Venezuelan citizen Hakim Mamad Al Diab Fatah was deported from the U.S. "on suspicion of involvement in the 9-11 attacks" having attended the same New Jersey flight school as the attackers. The U.S. legal attaché in Caracas asked the Venezuelan government to question Fatah upon his arrival, but Caracas says it has no record of the man reentering the country. Arostegui reports that a military officer involved in plotting against Chavez has alleged that the security forces met Fatah and took him to a safe house, and concludes that "the Fatah mystery appears to fall into a developing pattern of Venezuelan state involvement with terrorism."
In February 2003, according to Arostegui, Arab-Venezuelan Rahaman Hazil Mohammed Alan was arrested at London’s Gatwick Airport having smuggled aboard a hand grenade with a serial number that "corresponds to weapons stocks of the Caracas based 3rd army Division."
In May 2005 a British court convicted Alan of possession of a high explosive hand grenade with intent to endanger life under the Explosives Act and the Aviation Act. He will be deported back to Venezuela after serving his sentence. The judge determined that Alan was not acting as a terrorist, but his case and that of Fatah seem to be the best that those inclined to posit evidence for "state involvement with terrorism" can do.
In the UPI "analysis," Arostegui warns that, "Hundreds and possibly thousands of agents from rogue Arab nations are working hard to help President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela take control of South America’s largest oil industry and create al-Qaeda-friendly terrorist bases just two hours’ flying time from Miami." He suggests that the "half-million strong Venezuelan Arab community" in Venezuela harbors terrorists whom the Chavez regime consciously protects.
Now, this is a curious figure. The total population of Venezuela as of July 2005 was, according to the CIA Factbook, about 25,375,000. The same source specifies that 98% of Venezuelans are Catholic or Protestant Christians, leaving 2% "other." Other sources give a Jewish population of 35,000, a Buddhist population of 25,000. This leaves half a million who are neither Christians, Jews, nor Buddhists. But the most substantial listing of Venezuelan religious population I’ve found doesn’t give any information on Islam at all, and a Muslim site gives the figure of only 126,876 believers in Venezuela. I suppose there might be a large community of Arab Christian immigrants, but looks to me like Arostegui has simply done some math, found that the missing two percent amount to 507,000, and finds therein that "half-million strong" and threatening "Venezuelan Arab community" providing (in his fevered imagination) haven to the Muslim rogue-state agents.
Such shoddy, fear-mongering "journalism," vented first through the right-wing press, acquires a home in UPI, and then official reports (abetted, I’ll suggest, by some neocon interventions). Thus the Fatah story was mentioned in a 2003 Stratfor report, "Latin America: A Safe Haven for Militants?" with only the UPI article for documentation. John Bolton in his relentless campaign against Venezuela has clearly drawn upon Arotegui’s writings, and the Voice of America has validated him as an "expert" on terrorism. Interviewed by VOA after the March 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid and the decision by the newly elected Spanish government to withdraw Spain’s troops from Iraq, he declared the latter "an extraordinary coup for al-Qaida and an extraordinary victory for terrorism in general."
In another Washington Times article (June 2005) Arostegui blames Chavez for encouraging Bolivia’s Movement to Socialism Party, to which he attributes "an extremist anti-American agenda." I’d just bet you he’s Pat Robertson’s prime source for information on Venezuela. I’d further bet that the Christian fascist leader actually has faith in the disinfo he peddles. In Bolton’s case, I’d bet he knows that it’s all lies, but the neocons believe in peddling "noble lies" to attain heroic ends.
The neocons (generally irreligious Machiavellians who fancy themselves "the wise") in accordance with Leo Strauss’s political philosophy make use of "gentlemen" to obtain their ends. The latter, as Strauss scholar and critic Shadia Drury puts it "are lovers of honor and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society that is, the illusions of the cave [in Plato's Republic]. They are true believers in God, honor, and moral imperatives."
The "wise" have systematically disseminated lies. They’ve planned things out carefully. Their philosophy should be very clear by now. If the CIA and DIA aren’t telling you the "facts" you need to take action, you sideline them, disparage them, create an alternative source of information (the Office of Special Plans, which Congress still won’t investigate). In the case of Iraq, you feed that Office with useful lies obtained through Ahmad Chalabi and his cronies, delivered to the gullible public through friendly press operatives like Judith Miller. Midway between yourselves, and the masses for whom you feel only contempt, are "gentlemen" like the idiot-president whose vanity and fundamentalist religiosity you methodically exploit and Rev. Robertson whose televangelism wins over the wonderfully ignorant impressionable heartland.
It makes good sense to use a "journalist" like Arostegui to vilify Venezuela, and to have Robertson test the waters on this issue of assassinating Chavez. Good sense, that is, if you’re on board the program, and want to bring down an elected government and re-secure U.S. hegemony throughout an increasingly anti-imperialist Latin America. Robertson’s being depicted as a kook, even by some equally crazy pro-war Bushite commentators, because he specifically advocated assassination in violation of U.S. law. But he’s not the author of the accusations he airs to his parishioners, in support of his homicidal fatwa. Those pressing for action on Venezuela are those who pressed for action against Iraq, and who want to attack Iran—especially in the Defense Department, and the Vice President’s Office. While distancing themselves slightly (conveying no sense of real moral opprobrium) from the bloodthirsty preacherman, they must rejoice that even as the people turn against Bush and his wars, some powerful and trusted opinion-makers still evince support for the full gamut of dark arts options to deal with America’s (hence God’s) enemies.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org