When an imperious bully like Fidel Castro starts to fear, his instinct is to try to sow fear among his enemies. Today, with his student and benefactor, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, dying of cancer, what the Cuban dictator fears most is that his bankrupt regime in Havana is about to lose billions in critical aid and oil.
So, in an April 27 essay entitled, What Obama Knows, Castro conjures a “river of blood” in Venezuela if the Chavista movement is forced from power by the “oligarchy” or “overthrown” by the United States.
It would come as a surprise to President Obama that he is advocating the overthrow of the Chávez government. The passive policy of the U.S. government is to maintain commercial relations with that country and to wish the Venezuelan people well. What has Castro so alarmed is the intensified effort of U.S. law enforcement — primarily the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of the Treasury — to hold officials of the Chávez regime accountable for their complicity with drug trafficking and terrorism.
It is extraordinary, to say the least, that targeting drug kingpins in Venezuela is perceived as aggression against the government in Caracas. But that is an indictment of the senior leadership of the Chavista regime, hardly the fault of U.S. policy.
Castro’s desperate warning comes in the wake of news that a former Chavista supreme court justice, Eladio Aponte Aponte, has sought refuge in the United States and is cooperating with the DEA. Indeed, the Chavista leadership is in a panic because they know that Aponte Aponte is just the first of many defectors who will help U.S. prosecutors expose an international criminal conspiracy implicating Chávez and his most trusted operatives.
For example, potential U.S. indictments will likely torpedo a succession led by military loyalists Diosdado Cabello, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva and Gen. Cliver Alcala, whom Chávez had named to crucial posts in the National Assembly, ruling party and military, in spite of their notorious ties to drug trafficking.
For obvious reasons, a man as corrupt and paranoid as Fidel Castro is something of an expert on the U.S. judicial system. So, he knows that an indictment of Hugo Chávez is out of the question, because of his status as a head of state. Moreover, any federal prosecutor considering the indictment of a senior official of the Venezuelan government must obtain the prior approval of the Justice Department in Washington, DC. Castro, who 60 years ago was known for a wicked curveball, is throwing at Obama’s head: Call off your prosecutors, or deal with a bloody mess in the streets of Caracas.
No doubt, the wily dictator is hoping for an abundance of caution from President Obama in an election year. However, the idea that the White House would ask beleaguered Attorney General Eric Holder to intervene to save drug traffickers in Caracas is Castro-crazy.
My guess is that such U.S. indictments will come. So will the defectors. So will the preemptive squelching of witnesses. And so will the gangland-style assassinations, as the criminals who are running Venezuela today try to cover their tracks and evade justice.
Castro’s second warning is directed at the “oligarchs” of the opposition who intend to challenge Chavismo at the polls in October, when Chávez’s successor is supposed to be chosen. Chávez’s Cuban godfather is sending a not-so-subtle warning that democratic opponents will be branded as collaborators, as the U.S. justice system begins to chip away at the corrupt foundations of the regime. If that is the case, then Chavista civilians — like Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, Vice President Elias Jaua, Governor Adan Chávez, former Minister of Defense José Vicente Rangel — are similarly complicit in the crimes of the narco-generals who finance and defend their political movement. As the crimes of the military leadership are exposed, the civilian Chavistas will have no more credibility than the piano player in a bordello.
Perhaps Chávez’s henchmen are counting on the thousands of Cuban triggermen and Venezuelan militia members, who are armed to the teeth with Russian weapons. So, if there is bloodshed in Venezuela, let there be no mistake who is doing the shooting.
However, if such wanton violence is to be contained, it will require an unusual bit of resourcefulness by the civilian opposition and an unprecedented measure of courage by the majority of Venezuelan soldiers who would prefer to honor their constitution than murder innocents at the behest of criminals.
Only someone of Fidel Castro’s ilk would consider bloody repression in the service of drug traffickers a noble undertaking. His demented hope is that such a terrible threat will prevent Latin American leaders, whom he knows so well, and President Obama, whom he knows so little, from doing the right thing as a narco-state is unmasked in Caracas.
Roger F. Noriega was ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-03 and assistant secretary of state from 2003-05.