Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez recently returned from October encounters with some of the least savory actors on the international stage. His trip focused on cementing a new nexus or alignment in world affairs, some cleverly dubbed VIRUS. It is not a computer malfunction or a contagion but rather a shadowy network of cooperation linking Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and Syria.
A core element of VIRUS is developing nuclear capacity and acquiring nuclear weaponry, the ultimo ratio of international power politics. Chávez did exactly that when he purchased a nuclear reactor in Moscow, with a promise to buy more. And he is also procuring Russian missile technologies to develop a space launch center—for peaceful purposes, of course.
VIRUS, with its lack of transparency, radical agenda, and intense anti-Americanism, demands attention and evokes present and future nuclear nightmares despite President Obama’s dreams of a nuclear-free world. At least three members of VIRUS actively support terrorist organizations: Iran and Syria support Hamas and Hezbollah, while Venezuela supports FARC.
Back in Venezuela, Chávez turned to more mundane affairs. He launched a fresh round of state takeovers aimed at breaking a housing bottleneck and making homes affordable. Most recent targets include play-by-the-rules steelmaker Sidetur and U.S. bottle manufacturer Owens-Illinois. Sidetur “produces a number of steel-based construction materials and manages six plants in Venezuela.” The action, like previous nationalizations, will have a long-term negative effect on Venezuela’s struggling economy.
Spanish justice officials continue to pursue their case against a presumed Basque terrorist. While Chávez says he rejects terrorism and harbors no terrorists, Spanish authorities want a former ETA member residing in Venezuela extradited to Madrid. Chávez is denying the request, claiming the suspect is a Venezuelan citizen and therefore protected against extradition. Once more Chávez hopes to escape the terrorist-sponsor label in a cloud of legal obfuscation.
While Chávez confronts the Venezuelan private sector and Spanish prosecutors, he is trumpeting a new era of cooperation with neighboring Colombia. Laying aside the diplomacy of confrontation of the Alvaro Uribe presidency, Colombia’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos, is stressing economic connections between Colombia and Venezuela and playing down the terrorism issue. During Santos’s visit to Caracas on November 2, he and Chávez called for “turning the page” on past tensions.
Chávez and Santos promised to repair strained relations and agreed to set up commissions to address joint issues such as social investment and commerce, including possible free trade. A main theme of the talks is the fact that bilateral trade has been cut by around 70 percent and has blocked Venezuela’s debt repayment of nearly $800 million owed to Colombian businessmen.
Chávez’s zig-zag course and Santos’s readiness to cooperate with Chávez offers some relief to the Obama Administration. Lacking a Chávez policy worthy of the name, the Obama Administration welcomes the current lowering of tensions between Venezuela and ally Colombia as it lessens pressure on it to speak out about the Chávez threat.
Yet November’s man of peace in Caracas is the October man in Tehran who vowed to stand beside Iran’s Admadinejad and the Iranian Revolution come what may. For the moment, Santos hopes to keep Chávez inside the tent. Yet the probability runs high that the warm atmosphere of cooperation between the Andean neighbors will give way to the chilling reality of confrontation as Chávez’s revolutionary and global ambitions again manifest themselves.