By Kathleen T. Rhem
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2006 – The Venezuelan government's anti-U.S. stance is "bigger than a nuisance," the outgoing commander of U.S. military operations in Latin American said here yesterday. Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, slated to give up command of U.S. Southern Command in October and move to command of U.S. European Command, spoke to Pentagon reporters yesterday about a wide range of topics about both regions.
"I think there's an exporting of instability coming out of Venezuela," he said. "I think it's unfortunate. There's a glut of money there from oil. Money talks in a lot of parts of the world. It buys things, influence."
Craddock's comments came on the same day Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President Bush "a devil" during a speech to the U.N. General Assembly. The general said the United States should take such inflammatory speeches seriously.
Strengthening ties between Venezuela and Iran also worry U.S. officials, Craddock said. "It's of concern," he said. "We have to watch that."
Earlier this year, U.S. officials opposed Venezuela's purchase of 100,000 rifles from Russia because of the concern that Venezuela might funnel the weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a terrorist group known as FARC out of neighboring Colombia. Craddock said yesterday that Venezuela's neighbors are concerned that the country's recent purchases of high-performance aircraft and boats appear to be "more than would be needed for a reasonable defensive posture."
FARC terrorists take advantage of the porous border between Colombia and Venezuela to seek safe haven in Venezuela when they're fleeing Colombian government forces, Craddock said.
In large measure, the U.S. military has helped train those Colombian government forces, and Craddock said they've made tremendous strides. "They have built and are continuing to build a very competent, capable security force, both military and police," he said.
The country has made substantial reforms and is focusing transformation of its defense organizational structure on threats it's facing today. "Every servicemember is trained in human rights," Craddock said. "Their leaders get human rights training. Only 2 percent of human rights allegations made in Colombia in the last couple years have been against police or military."
The general cited successes in military partnerships in the region as evidence that engagement is the best way to deal with political tension between Venezuela and the United States. SOUTHCOM officials invite Venezuelan military leaders to all regional military conferences and meetings, and Venezuelan military officers are welcome in U.S. military training venues, he said.
"We want to have an engagement with the (Venezuelan) military. We've had a long history of it," he said. "We still have some Venezuelan officers in the United States training. We would value that. We would hope they would continue to come."
He noted the relationship between the two countries' militaries is strained, more so than in the past. "It is not healthy. We would like to turn that around," Craddock said. "But we're limited by the political rhetoric, quite frankly."