Venezuela's Chavez offers to take Guantanamo detainees

McClatchy NewspapersApril 2, 2009 

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez has a well-honed habit of insulting U.S. presidents and decrying U.S. capitalism.

But Chavez now wants to help President Barack Obama solve one of his thorniest foreign policy issues.

Venezuela is willing to begin housing some of the suspected terrorists held by the United States at its military prison on Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, Chavez told reporters while in Qatar.

Obama is planning to close Guantanamo by early next year and is asking allies to take as many of the prisoners as possible off his hands. No one has stepped forward yet.

Now Chavez has.

"We wouldn't have any problem in taking in human beings," Chavez told the Arabic TV channel al Jazeera Wednesday at a summit of South American and Arab leaders in Doha, Qatar.

For good measure, Chavez also renewed his calls for the U.S. to return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, his closest ally. Chavez said the U.S. should end its business with "this miserable prison."

Some in Venezuela see irony in Chavez' descriptions of conditions at the U.S. prison in Cuba.

Humberto Prato, the general coordinator of the Caracas-based Venezuelan Prison Observation — a non-profit that monitors prison conditions, noted that Venezuela's prisons are terrible.

"They are inhumane," said Prato.

Some 24,000 inmates are housed in facilities built for half that many, he noted. And prison violence kills more than 400 inmates per year, he added.

"Venezuela needs to first begin taking care of its own inmates before taking care of anyone else's," Prato said.

The Obama administration seems in no rush to accept Chavez's offer.

"The United States has not received a formal offer through diplomatic channels to resettle detainees to Venezuela, and is not contemplating resettling detainees to Venezuela," said Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman.

Boyd noted that a task force "is conducting a case-by-case analysis to determine the best available option for addressing each detainee at Guantanamo Bay. We are committed to ensuring that each of these individuals is addressed through responsible policies that are consistent with the interests of justice and the national security and foreign policy objectives of the United States."

There are 240 or so war-on-terror detainees in Guantanamo from about 30 countries.

The Obama administration is likely to send some of them to the United States, probably for trial, and is seeking to resettle or transfer others to third countries.

But administration officials have limited options. They fear, for example, that sending Muslims from China back to the communist nation will result in their being oppressed or tortured. The same goes for Algerians, Libyans and other Muslims if they were sent home.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration may have to deal with many more detainees than simply those held at Guantanamo.

Over the objections of the Obama administration, a federal judge ruled Thursday that some prisoners held at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan could challenge their detentions in court.

The facility currently holds 600 prisoners.

Chavez commented only on the Guantanamo detainees.

Cynthia McClintock, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said she suspects that Chavez's real intention is "to continue to gig the United States by highlighting a place with a history of torture and abuses."

Maria Teresa Romero, an international relations professor at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas, offered a different rationale for Chavez's statement.

"He's trying to call attention to himself because it's becoming clearer and clearer that he's isolated abroad," Romero said. "The world's eyes are on London where Lula and Obama are. Lula is now the big star of the left."

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is Brazil's president.

Gerardo Arellano, also an international relations professor at Venezuela's Central University, said Chavez's expressed sympathies for Colombia's narco-guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, would undoubtedly discourage U.S. officials from accepting Chavez's offer.

"It could amount to a get out of jail-free-card," Arellano said.

Another high-profile Venezuelan also weighed in on Guantanamo, but from a different vantage point.

Dayana Mendoza, the reigning Miss Universe, blogged about her recent five-day, morale boosting trip for the U.S. soldiers there.

"I didn't want to leave, it was such a relaxing place, so calm and beautiful," Mendoza wrote. "The water... is soooo beautiful! We went to the glass beach, and realized the name of it comes from the little pieces of broken glass from hundreds of years ago. It is pretty to see all the colors shining with the sun."

(Contributing to this story were Warren Stroebel and Marisa Taylor in Washington and Miami Herald Staff Writer Carol Rosenberg in Guantanamo.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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