WASHINGTON — Sanctioning Venezuela for allegedly supporting a Marxist Colombian guerrilla group would make Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more popular and diminish U.S. standing in Latin America, a report released Monday by the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warns.
Several lawmakers, including Florida Republican Reps. Connie Mack and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have called on the Bush administration to designate Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism, following revelations that Chavez may have been closer to the guerrilla group known as the FARC than previously reported.
The State Department has not ruled out a possible terrorist designation, saying it would carefully investigate the contents of several computers belonging to slain rebel leader Raul Reyes before making a determination. This raises the possibility of broad, Iran-like sanctions against Venezuela, a top exporter of oil to the the United States. Washington considers the FARC — Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a terrorist organization.
The report, however, said it would be counterproductive to sanction Venezuela without regional support — something the report says would be difficult to pull off.
Information contained in files retrieved from Reyes' laptop computers suggest Venezuela and Ecuador were in close contact with FARC guerrillas, and Venezuela may have been in the process of providing up to $300 million in financial support for the group.
Colombian security forces seized the computers after bombing and then swooping into a FARC camp in Ecuador and retrieving the body of Reyes. The March 1 incident triggered diplomatic tensions with neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.
The report "strongly cautions that policymakers must be wary of the implications of poorly thought out sanctions which might isolate the United States.''
"If Venezuela is found to be complicit, the U.S. would be wise to allow for the regional dynamic to take its course,'' the report says. "If the U.S. reacts too strongly, attention will go from Venezuela's transgressions to yet another example of îAmerican intervention' and strong-arm tactics.''
To garner more regional support and pressure Venezuela, the report recommends releasing all the computer information.
"Once the nature of FARC activities and the alleged relationships of some countries with the FARC are verified and exposed, it will be difficult for the complicit countries to continue to support the FARC through action or inaction,'' the report said.
The report was prepared by Carl Meacham, an aide on Latin American issues to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Meacham traveled to Ecuador and Colombia to meet with officials on March 18-19.
The text says the Colombians were "ambiguous'' on the possibility of more U.S. sanctions. On one hand, they recognized limiting Venezuela's oil income could slow down the country's purchase of advanced weapons that Colombians fear. But officials also noted that Venezuela is Colombia's second largest trading partner after the United States, and a "complete shut-down'' of bilateral trade could cost Colombia 100,000 jobs.
The report also recommends the administration act carefully so as not to "impinge U.S. commercial prospects in Venezuela'' and not label countries as terrorist backers "simply because they are carrying out their perceived national interest in maintaining relations with Venezuela.''