The Return of Tom Lantos

With the Democrats now taking over Congress, the question is: what will the change in leadership mean for U.S. policy towards Venezuela? While it’s heartening that some progressive legislators will be headed to Washington, unfortunately some hawkish figures stand to influence Latin America policy. Unless he is upended by Representative Howard Berman, Tom Lantos will become the Chair of the House International Relations Committee.

Lantos, who represents California’s 12th congressional district in San Mateo, supported the October, 2002 “blank check” resolution granting authority to George Bush to wage preemptive war. According to John Nichols of the Nation magazine, Lantos is “reasonably solid” when it comes to supporting a liberal domestic agenda. “But,” Nichols comments, “It’s a different story on foreign policy matters.”

Back in 2002 Lantos ignored anti-war activists who protested at his office, preferring instead to pursue a pro-war agenda in Congress. According to Nichols, Lantos said it was his “privilege” to deliver 81 pro-war Democratic votes for Bush. More recently, Lantos has criticized the execution of the war, and claims that the White House misled him about pre-war intelligence. Nevertheless he supports Bush’s moves to fund the U.S. military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, Lantos has been one of the House’s consistent backers of the Patriot Act.


Congressman Lantos: Venezuela Hawk

Given his hawkish positions, it’s not surprising that Lantos would take an aggressive position towards the leftist government of Hugo Chavez. The bad blood between the Venezuelan regime and Lantos goes back to 2004. Lantos, along with fellow lawmakers such as Republican Henry Hyde, sent a letter to Chavez complaining that the Venezuelan government was abusing its power when it accused Sumate, an opposition group, of conspiring with the U.S. to topple the Chavez regime.

In the letter, Lantos and others admit that Sumate had been financed by the U.S. taxpayer funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) but that this financing would help encourage Venezuelan democracy. Lantos’s letter elicited a sharp rejoinder from Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez, who commented that the U.S. government was inconsistent when it came to democracy, and that the U.S. was the only country in the hemisphere to recognize the illegitimate Carmona regime which came to power in a brief coup d’etat in April 2002.


Lantos Snubbed in Caracas

Things deteriorated further last year when Lantos was allegedly refused entry into Venezuela and was stopped at the airport. Lantos had gone to the South American country as part of a high-level delegation headed by Republican Henry Hyde, the same legislator who had defended NED the year before.

Lantos and the delegation claimed they were actually harassed and held onboard their aircraft by customs officials at Caracas’s Simon Bolivar International Airport. The delegation, which sought to repair troubled U.S.-Venezuelan relations, was set to meet personally with Chavez himself. After two hours, the delegation claimed, they left when government officials said that they could not guarantee that the party would be allowed to disembark or pursue its schedule on the ground. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry denies the charges, claiming that it never held the congressmen who simply opted to continue on their way.

The incident provided fodder for xenophobic nationalists like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who told his viewers that the Venezuelan government’s actions constituted “a Chavez insult to America.” El Universal, a conservative Venezuelan newspaper, suggested that Chavez may have wanted to snub the delegation as payback, since the U.S. had refused to grant a visa to many members of Chavez’s security detail when the Venezuelan president went to visit the United Nations in New York.


Lantos Goes On the Offensive

Snubbed by Chavez, Lantos went on the rhetorical offensive this past summer. During a hearing of the House’s International Relations Committee, the California lawmaker accused Chavez of financing the electoral campaign of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (the Venezuelan leader has denied the charges). Lantos added fuel to the fire by remarking that in Venezuela, “the basis of democracy is being systematically suffocated by a demagogic leader.”

Lantos went on to demonize Chavez for his ties to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and for creating “a one party state in Venezuela.” Lantos added, “To insure the recently elected and soon to be elected Presidents of Latin America are not pressured into accepting the oil slick promises of dictators with dollars, we must reengage with the region.”

Lantos’s remarks were countered by some other Democrats including Howard Berman, a fellow California legislator. The U.S. was hypocritical in harking on democracy in Latin America, Berman argued. “I was in Nicaragua during the last presidential election [in November, 2001],” he said, “and it appeared to me that the U.S. Embassy was very involved in guaranteeing the defeat of Mr. Ortega.”

Berman is currently Lantos’ rival to run the House’s International Relations Committee. According to a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, Berman, who represents parts of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, has often “been less conciliatory to the GOP” than Lantos. “Ousting Lantos,” according to the Forward, ” could signal that Democrat leaders, including presumed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, intend to usher in an era of more overtly partisan confrontation.”


Lantos and Democrats Provoke Chavez on Media

But in the end, will the new “Madame Speaker” have the nerve to stand up to the hawks in the Democratic Party? She herself called Chavez “a thug” when the Venezuelan leader recently traveled to the United Nations and insulted George Bush. Unfortunately, the Democrats hardly inspire confidence and have more often than not joined with the Republicans in bashing Venezuela. A key example of this is the Democrats’ handling of the Venezuelan media issue.

I recently returned from an extended six week trip to Venezuela, where I was struck by the stridently anti-U.S. tone in much of the government media. One edition of the pro-Chavez paper Diario VEA had a screaming headline reading, “General Baduel Warns: Foreign Aggression is Possible.” Again and again on Vive TV, a state owned station, the channel would broadcast a short segment showing stark, bombed out images of Iraq.

“Imagine if your city was invaded and destroyed by a foreign army,” intoned a solemn voiceover. It had been some years since I’d been back to Venezuela, and the state media had clearly ratcheted up the rhetoric against the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
Perhaps more controversially from the point of view of Washington, Chavez has also launched Telesur, a hemispheric wide satellite news station. Oil-rich Venezuela supplies 51% of Telesur’s budget, with Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay providing the rest of the funding. I frequently watched the station during my time in Venezuela and was struck by the coverage of the war in Iraq, which was much more graphic and critical of the conflict than our own U.S. media.

Since its initial launch in 2005 Telesur, which aims to rival other news stations such as Univision and CNN en Espanol, has certainly come a long way professionally. When I had first watched the station in the U.S. via Telesur’s Web site, there had been frequent technical glitches. But now, I could scarcely tell the difference between Telesur and CNN from a technological standpoint.

In July 2005, Congressman Connie Mack, a right wing Republican from Florida, sponsored a measure to authorize U.S. supported radio and television broadcasts to Venezuela. Mack, a vocal critic of Hugo Chavez, has said that Telesur spreads “anti-American, anti-freedom rhetoric.” Mack’s legislation was approved as part of an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorizations Act. Under the amendment the U.S. government could provide radio and television broadcasts, through the independent Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) for up to 30 minutes a day.

Though the legislation was supported by many Republicans, it also attracted support from Democrats and passed easily in the House. Again, it was Lantos who went on the attack, remarking that as Chavez “ramps up his information campaign, we should be prepared to present balanced news to the people of Venezuela.” During the vote on the House floor on Representative Mack’s media proposal, no Democrats spoke out against the measure. What’s more, according to the Venezuela Information Office based in Washington, D.C., no liberal Democratic legislators have spoken out against Republican legislation designed to set up anti-Chavez media.

Predictably, Mack’s amendment spread nothing but further ill will between the United States and Venezuela. Chavez called the amendment “a preposterous imperialist idea that should not surprise us because we know what the U.S. government is capable of.” The Venezuelan president vowed to jam the signals if the U.S. tried to transmit broadcasts to Venezuela.
Colombia: An Opportunity for Democrats to Mend Fences with Chavez

Given all of the acrimonious history between Democratic hawks and Chavez, it is going to take a lot to restore trust. But perhaps, if the Democrats start to restrict U.S. aid to the Colombian military, Chavez’s paranoia might be allayed somewhat. For years the U.S. has spent billions arming the Colombian military, ostensibly to fight drug trafficking. Chavez regularly denounces the drug war as a thinly disguised excuse to extend U.S. military control over the Andean region (for a more detailed discussion of Chavez’s position on the drug war, see my recently released book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S). The Venezuelan president recently charged that the Bush administration might even be considering an invasion of Venezuela through Colombian territory.

While such rhetoric might seem overblown, Chavez has some reason to feel concerned. Paramilitaries allegedly tied to the U.S. funded Colombian military routinely cross over the frontier into Venezuela, creating friction along the more than 1,200 mile border. The Paramilitaries have pursued refugees into Venezuela, where they have killed or kidnapped those fleeing the violence. Even worse, the Chavez government claims that Colombian paramilitaries cross the border and fire on Venezuelan security forces. Ongoing clashes have led to the untimely deaths of Venezuelan military personnel.

Chavez has claimed, plausibly, that he needs to protect the border. In recent years the Venezuelan leader has acquired military hardware from Spain and Russia. Prior to the Democratic takeover, the right wing Republican majority in Congress showed no sign that it was willing to change course in Colombia and vociferously supported President Alvaro Uribe’s calls for greater military aid. In a recent move, the State Department inexplicably “certified” that the Colombian armed forces had improved their human rights record, thus freeing up frozen military aid.

To his credit, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont disputed the certification.

As the ranking Democrat in charge of foreign assistance, he temporarily halted the aid. Now that the Democrats have taken Congress, there is a possibility for greater scrutiny of human rights in Colombia as Leahy is now responsible for writing the basic draft of the foreign aid bill each year.

If Leahy and progressive legislators start to limit or put greater conditions on military aid to Colombia, tensions might be lessened in that war torn nation and this in turn could lead to greater peace and stability along the Venezuelan border. If Chavez perceives that Washington is serious about reining in the Colombian military, he might be prompted to reduce his own military expenditures.

Hopefully, Congress may restore some restore some semblance of rationality and humanity to U.S. policy in South America. The Democrats must now choose: will they continue the bombastic rhetoric that we have seen from the likes of Lantos? Will they promote counter productive legislation on the media which will only serve to agitate the Chavez government further? Will they continue to fund the Colombian military to the tune of billions of dollars with little oversight, leading to more strained relations with the Chavez government? In the weeks and months ahead, we shall see which wing of the Democratic Party prevails on these vital questions.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s Press).



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NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.

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