Spain-Venezuela ties strained as Hugo Chávez stonewalls ETA investigation
Venezuela has said it will not extradite Arturo Cubillas, an alleged top militant of the separatist group ETA. Spanish authorities today moved toward an official request, which Hugo Chávez is unlikely to support.
Madrid — A standoff between Spain and Venezuela is heating up as Spanish authorities move toward requesting the extradition of an alleged ETA member working within the government of President Hugo Chávez.
Venezuela said last week it would not extradite Arturo Cubillas, the Basque separatist group’s alleged top militant in Latin America, because local law does not allow extraditions of citizens. A Spaniard, Mr. Cubillas became a naturalized citizen in 1993.
But the decision of Spain's prosecutor general to ask today for the National Court to request the extradition underscores how authorities are under pressure to act more forcefully against Mr. Chávez. His defiance and ongoing refusal to cooperate with Spanish authorities could ultimately trigger a powerful reaction from Europe and the United States, including labeling the country a state sponsor of terrorism, analysts say.
“If [the Spanish government] wanted to, it could pressure Europe and its allies, including the US, to include Venezuela in the list of state sponsors of terrorism," says Oscar Elía, an ETA expert with the Madrid-based Strategic Studies Group who has written extensively about the Basque group. "This could blow over if Chávez was more helpful, but he doesn’t even deny it. Instead he is defiant and arrogant.”
Chávez stonewalls investigation
The Spanish investigation, which dates to 2008, produced an indictment in February alleging use of Venezuela as a training ground for militants with ETA and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Both groups are labeled terrorist organizations by the European Union and the United States.
The case “demonstrates Venezuelan governmental cooperation in the illicit collaboration” of the two groups, which included explosive-handling, intelligence sharing, and surface-to-air missile-training seminars, the indictment said.
After months of stonewalling, Chávez on Oct. 11 opened a separate case in Venezuela to investigate the allegations against Mr. Cubillas. But he also dismissed them as fabrications orchestrated to discredit his government. “Foolish words fall on deaf ears,” he said.
Chávez is not new to accusations of harboring and abetting terrorist groups. Colombia has accused him of arming, financially aiding, and protecting FARC guerrillas. Washington has also on several occasions voiced its suspicions and warned Chávez, but he has always denied having anything more than ideological sympathies, and no Western court case has challenged that.
"The ties between the FARC and ETA in Venezuela are increasingly evident. But for Chavez it’s a question of image,” says Mr. Elía. “He has taken over Cuba’s role as the main exporter of revolutions and he wants to uphold that, but this is serious because it involves aiding international terrorism.”
Venezuela security official trained ETA
The investigation resurfaced this month with the testimony of two recently captured militants of ETA’s international branch, who said they trained in Venezuela as part of regular sessions organized by Cubillas, a security official in the Agriculture Ministry who took refuge in Venezuela in 1989.
Spanish police also collected testimony of former FARC guerrillas that incriminate Cubillas and other members of Venezuela’s intelligence agency and armed forces. Spain’s Interior Ministry, courts, and prosecutors say they find the testimonies credible and the country’s prosecutor general, Cándido Conde Pumpido, has demanded that Venezuela either “hand over or prosecute” Cubillas.
While Mr. Pumpido’s office today asked the court to formally request the extradition of Cubillas, his international arrest warrant was issued in March.
In response, Cubillas himself filed a complaint last week with Venezuelan Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega that alleges that ETA militants who incriminated him testified under torture. Venezuela has also issued an international arrest warrant through Interpol for a former Army general who is due to testify in the Spanish case, which some point to Chávez’s maneuvers to derail the case.
Spain under pressure from Venezuela
Spanish companies have a big presence in Venezuela and the Socialist government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero enjoys friendly ties with Chávez. Indeed, Vice President Maria Teresa Fernández de la Vega has said the government doesn’t believe Chavez was aware of Cubilla’s activities.
Diplomacy aside, though, analysts say the Spanish government is increasingly under pressure to act more forcefully against Chávez.
“It was timid at first, but this could be politically costly internally and with other allies like Colombia and the US,” says Vicente Palacio, the vice director of the Spanish Foreign Affairs Observatory, part of the Fundación Alternativas think tank that has close relations to the government.
“This is a critical moment, and this could put Chávez in the eye of the hurricane in terms of international terrorism. Venezuela could be considered a refuge and nest of international terrorists and that is serious,” says Mr. Palacio. “The Spanish government will try to solve this discreetly if Venezuela is more helpful. But Chávez has made this into a state affair.”
The problem, according to Elía of the Strategic Studies Group, is that Chávez feels Spain and the US, the traditional power brokers in Latin America, are preoccupied with internal affairs. “Chávez is taking advantage of a perceived weakness," he says. "And I doubt they’ll confront him forcefully on this.”