Shadow Government

The judge who can convict Chávez

Tonight a small but enterprising Miami-based TV network, SoiTV, will air a revealing interview with former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte Aponte, who has been under the protection of the U.S. DEA for several days. The authors of this article had access to the interview results.

Judge Aponte Aponte is, so far, the highest official who has defected since Hugo Chávez came to power. His testimony presents a unique view into the criminal structure promoted by the current Venezuelan government. Aponte also names individuals who have committed serious violations of Venezuelan human rights and attacks on foreign interests.

Mr. Aponte confessed that he received direct orders from President Hugo Chávez to use his legal power against individuals that opposed the regime. As president of the criminal tribunal of the Supreme Court, Aponte had supervision of all criminal courts in the country and practically on all judges, with a capacity to influence almost any judicial decision.

Moreover, in his testimony Mr. Aponte says he also received calls from Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, Venezuela's Defense Minister and Hugo Carvajal, who until recently was the head of military intelligence, among others, ordering him to "manipulate judicial proceedings." Both Rangel Silva and Carvajal have been designated by the U.S. Treasury as "drug kingpins" for their ties to the narco-terrorist FARC guerrilla army in Colombia. Moreover, Aponte alleges that he has "evidence" of the high officials' ties to narcotics traffickers. An example he cites is that of a drug shipment that was safeguarded overnight in a Venezuelan military base. Aponte says he was ordered to provide legal cover for the drug shipment as it made its way from the border to "the center of the country" (on the coast, where Venezuela's ports are located).

Aponte also admits to having been linked to other important figures designated by the U.S. Department of Treasury as international drug traffickers, such as Walid Makled who, according to a federal indictment in New York, sent hundreds of tons of cocaine into the U.S. with the help of top-ranking Venezuelan officials. Makled's "trial" began a few days ago in Venezuela.

It was, in fact, Aponte's link to Makled that led to Aponte's removal from the Supreme Court by the General Assembly of Venezuela and his subsequent defection to Costa Rica, where the DEA picked Aponte up. Makled had been arrested in Colombia nearly two years ago and extradited to Venezuela in 2011. While in a Colombian prison, Makled was interviewed by various U.S. law enforcement agencies, and his testimony implicated Aponte in drug trafficking. Since Chávez has had Makled in his jails for nearly a year, Chávez knew what Makled was going to say at his trial about Aponte, and therefore Aponte had to be "sacrificed" to save Chávez and what the Venezuelan people call his "narco-generals."

Numerous reports from the U.S. State Department and international human rights monitors indicate that the Venezuelan judicial system is used by the President Chávez as a tool to punish and persecute opposition leaders, as well as to obtain the release of drug traffickers.

Aponte's testimony is probably the most important evidence so far to show the lack of independent institutions in Venezuela, the existence of political prisoners, and the links between high-ranking members of the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking and criminal organizations such as Colombia's FARC.

Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter: @ottoreich

Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @ezequielvazquez


Shadow Government

The U.S.-Latin America disconnect

From the photographs of Hillary Clinton partying up at a Cartagena disco during last weekend's Sixth Summit of the Americas, it appears she was the only U.S. official who enjoyed herself while in Colombia. (We'll leave out the members of the president's security detail who were sent home for allegedly consorting with prostitutes.)

Indeed, despite being commended for "listening politely," President Obama had to have been frustrated with being endlessly harangued by his counterparts over historical and ideological grievances that predated his birth. It was, as the president said, like entering a "time warp."

Rather than figuring out how to cooperate with our southern neighbors in meeting the challenges of the 21st century global economy, the president was instead forced to sit and listen as others complained about why Stalinist Cuba wasn't invited to a summit of otherwise popularly elected governments or how come the United Kingdom won't honor Argentina's specious claim to the Falkland Islands after more than two centuries?

It's a wonder nobody demanded that President Obama cede back to Mexico a huge chunk of the American Southwest.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of Latin American populism is nursing historical grudges; it's easier than having to solve real problems. But, still, the disconnect between the agendas of the United States and our neighbors to the south continues to widen. And, in this, those administration officials tasked with managing the Latin America portfolio are not blameless.

Three years of U.S. neglect -- combined with a period of economic prosperity built mostly on Chinese demand for agricultural commodities and raw materials -- have convinced many governments in the region that cooperation with the United States is not as important as it used to be. An expression of that new-found attitude is talking about issues they want to talk about, and in which the United States has no interest discussing.

It is perfectly natural that Latin American governments are branching out and establishing new economic relationships or boosting trade amongst themselves. But spurning closer cooperation with the United States -- whose economy still comprises almost seventy percent of regional GDP -- is in no one's long-term interest.

It may be that the region is enjoying good times economically, but Chinese demand isn't always going to be there, and it is hardly a foundation on which to build lasting prosperity. Moreover, confronting the U.S. over historical grievances may boost some sort of elitist self-esteem, but it is hardly relevant to the majority of the region's citizens who live on less than two dollars a day.

Enhancing long-term development is better met through closer regional cooperation in trade integration, promoting energy security, strengthening democratic institutions, and tackling drug corruption and violence. And, of course, it cannot just be a one-way street. The ground is shifting under U.S.-Latin America relations, with the days of demand and compliance a distant memory.

In an increasingly turbulent world, there is much to say for developing stronger relationships within our own hemisphere. By doing so, we will also necessarily crowd out those who would rather wallow in the past than look to a prosperous and mutually beneficial future.

With this most recent summit so dominated by issues no U.S. president can find any benefit in discussing, some have speculated that this may very well be the last such summit in which the U.S. will likely participate. That would be unfortunate. Better that the Sixth Summit of the Americas be remembered as the nadir of U.S.-Latin America relations, with the only way to go but up.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images