Chavez hides domestic unrest with criticism of US, Colombia

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has fiercely criticised US plans to send troops to Colombia to help fight drug trafficking, but his outrage may be an attempt to divert attention from controversial anti-democratic measures at home.


Fiery Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez lashed out once again against his favourite pair of enemies: Colombia and the United States. The leftist leader, who accuses Washington of using the war on drugs as a pretext to boost its regional military presence, strongly opposes US plans to deploy extra troops at bases in Colombia to assist in anti-drug operations.


Chavez considers the plan “a possible step towards war in South America” and called on President Barack Obama to reconsider it. “We’re talking about the Yankees, the most aggressive nation in human history,” he told reporters at a press conference at the Miraflores presidential palace on Wednesday.


At the conference, “Chavez launched a real charm offensive on international journalists before turning on his nemesis, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe,” recounts Francois Xavier Freland, FRANCE 24’s Venezuela correspondent. The Venezuelan leader is looking for external support to isolate Uribe as he tours South America to calm his neighbours’ fears on the US troop plan, Freland explains.


Making noise to drown out interior criticism


According toFRANCE 24’s correspondent, Chavez tends to try to drown out criticism at home by stirring up trouble on the international front. He is currently facing growing criticism from Venezuelans, including members of his own camp, for his media clampdown laws and forced nationalisations. The popularity of his “Bolivarian revolution” is at an all-time low.


According to a survey conducted by the think tank Keller y asociados published by Venezuelan daily El Universal, 54 percent of Venezuelans have a “negative perception” of the country’s current situation, while only 28 percent approve of the government’s decision to ban 34 opposition radio and TV channels. Even the Chavez-dominated Venezuelan parliament refused to ratify a bill proposed by Venezuelan attorney general Luisa Ortega, a close Chavez ally, that would allow journalists to be jailed for publishing items of “false news” which “jeopardise national security”.


NGOs at home and abroad such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders all denounced the bill, but Hugo Chavez says he will plough on with his media reform despite criticism.


“They’re shouting because we want to make all media democratic, to guarantee real freedom of expression (…) And they threaten us. So let them threaten us! Whatever they say, there is free speech in Venezuela and we will continue to move forward,” declared Chavez on Tuesday, in response to protests from journalists.


Faced with the growing dissatisfaction of his population regarding the undemocratic tendencies of his government, Chavez responds with one of the things he does best: agitation on the international front.


Commercial sanctions and military contracts


Chavez’s attempts to isolate his Colombian counterpart have so far been only partly successful. Peru’s conservative president Alan Garcia fully endorses the US and Colombia’s anti-drug efforts, and Chilean Foreign Minister Mariano Fernandez has said decisions made by Colombia concerning its territory are “sovereign and should be respected”. But Bolivia’s leftist president Evo Morales, a staunch Chavez ally, said it was “his country’s duty” not to accept US military presence on Latin American soil, and Brazil’s Ignacio Lula da Silva expressed “some concern” over the plan.


Chavez also blames Uribe for “backstabbing” him when Uribe announced that arms recently seized from the rebel group FARC had in fact been sold to Venezuela by Sweden in the 1990s. “That’s a cowardly and ugly game!” declared the Venezuelan president, explaining that the rocket-propellers had been stolen from Venezuela in 1995 and that they were too old to be used anyway.


In response, Chavez has ratcheted up the spat with Bogota by barring Colombian state-run energy firm Ecopetrol from the Orinoco oil region and halting imports of some 10,000 Colombian vehicles.


The Venezuelan leader also announced that his country will buy dozens of Russian tanks in a move signalling growing military ties between these two countries that have frequently clashed with Washington. Between 2005 and 2007, Moscow and Caracas signed 12 arms deals worth a total of 4.4 billion dollars.

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