U.S. may add Venezuela to list of terrorist states
By Pablo Bachelet
Newspapers" WASHINGTON — The Bush
administration has launched a preliminary legal inquiry that
could land Venezuela on the U.S. list of nations that support
terrorism, following reports of close Venezuelan links with
Colombian rebels, a senior government official has confirmed.
The investigation is the first step in a process that could see
Venezuela join North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, Syria and Iran as
countries designated by the State Department as supporters of
U.S. laws give some leeway on what economic activity is subject
to such sanctions, but experts say adding Venezuela to the list
would force U.S. and even foreign firms to sever or curtail
links with one of the world's largest oil producers.
The legal review comes after Colombia captured four computers
belonging to a guerrilla leader in a March 1 raid into Ecuador.
The documents suggest the Venezuelan government was in the
process of providing $300 million to the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The U.S. and Colombian governments and the European Union have
officially designated FARC as a terrorist organization, but
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said publicly that he
considers it a legitimate insurgency.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity
because of the delicate nature of the subject, said government
lawyers had been asked to clarify "what goes into effect in
terms of prohibitions, or prohibited activities," with the state
The official was reluctant to predict if the FARC computer
discoveries will lead to sanctions, noting U.S. investigators
first must corroborate their veracity. The lawyers have not yet
returned their opinions, the official added.
But if the captured documents are shown to be true, the official
said, "I think it will beg the question of whether or not
Venezuela, given Chavez's interactions with the FARC, has ...
crossed the threshold of state sponsor of terror."
Aware of the weighty impact of declaring a country a state
sponsor of terrorism, officials say a designation occurs only
after careful deliberation. Rhonda Shore, a spokeswoman for the
State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Terrorism, said
in an email that a government must have "repeatedly provided
support for acts of international terrorism."
Venezuela already is subject to a U.S. weapons sale ban and
other sanctions as a country that refuses to cooperate on
terrorism matters. Chavez has established warm relations with
Iran. Bush administration officials also complain that Venezuela
refuses to cooperate on drug trafficking issues and has lax
standards for controlling identity documents.
But declaring Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism would take
the sanctions to a much higher degree.
Such a designation "immediately imposes restrictions on the
abilities of U.S. companies to work in Venezuela," said James
Lewis, a former State Department arms trafficking expert now
with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington. "It would make it very hard for Venezuela to sell
oil to the U.S."
The State Department's website cites four categories of
sanctions for countries on the terror list, including
restrictions on U.S. aid, a ban on weapons sales, tightened
controls over items that have dual military and civilian
purposes and "miscellaneous financial and other restrictions."
Lewis said the last category is "the killer." Those sanctions,
often implemented by the Treasury Department's Office of Asset
Control, prohibit U.S. companies and banks from dealing with
countries on the list. Even non-U.S. companies are reluctant to
do business with Iranian companies for fear of running afoul of
U.S. sanctions, he added.
The designation could reach far beyond the oilfields. Boeing,
for instance, would need to be careful in its dealings with
Venezuelan airlines, Lewis added. Assets belonging to specially
designated entities linked to the country could see their
financial assets in U.S. banks frozen.
But Lewis and other U.S. officials cautioned that the harsh
sanctions against Iran, which was declared a state sponsor in
1984, would not necessarily be replicated on Venezuela.
"There's not a standard template" for sanctions, said John
Rankin, a spokesman for the Office of Asset Control.
But even a more gentle menu of sanctions would have strong
economic and foreign policy implications, given Venezuela's
position as the hemisphere's third largest exporter to the
United States, after Canada and Mexico. In 2007, it was the
fourth largest supplier of petroleum to the United States, after
Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. The government-owned PDVSA oil
company also owns CITGO Petroleum, which has several refineries
in the United States and is the country's third-largest supplier
Chavez, who often rails against President Bush and U.S.
policies, has repeatedly threatened to cut off oil shipments to
the United States in response to what he views as a possible
U.S. attack against his government.
But few believe he can carry out his threat, given that he needs
U.S. refineries to process his heavy crude. Chavez recently has
been looking to expand his sales to places like China.
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