Why Spain can't anger Hugo Chávez, even if he's aiding Basque terrorists.

What were two members of a violent Basque separatist group doing with 11 members of Colombia's narco-Marxist insurgency in a remote corner of southwestern Venezuela in August 2007? According to a blockbuster indictment handed down by a Spanish judge last week, they were participating in a kind of intercontinental terrorist training camp held under the aegis of the Venezuelan military.  

More specifically, the two members of ETA, or "Basque Homeland and Freedom," were teaching the rebels from FARC, or "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia," how to use plastic explosives and urban guerrilla tactics, such as rigging cell phones to work as bomb fuses. This unlikely alliance between FARC, a peasant-based Marxist movement financed by a massive drug-trafficking operation, and ETA, a nationalist group that specializes in shooting Spanish policemen, civil servants, and local politicians in the back of the head, dates back as far as 1993. According to the indictment, beginning in 2000, ETA plotted with FARC to murder a range of leading Colombian political figures when they traveled to Spain, including sitting president Alvaro Uribe.

But it's Venezuela's alleged involvement with two of the Spanish-speaking world's most notorious terror groups that has set off a political firestorm in Spain, where the center-left government enjoys a close relationship with the Venezuelan caudillo, Hugo Chávez. The indictment, which is the culmination of several years of investigation by Spanish and Colombian police, claims that Chavez's soldiers and a military intelligence officer escorted the FARC members to their August 2007 training site. What's more, among the seven FARC and six ETA members charged with conspiracy to murder and holding explosives in collaboration with a terrorist group is Arturo Cubillas Fontán, a longtime ETA leader who emigrated to Venezuela in 1989. According to El Pais, he works as head of security for Venezuela's ministry of Agriculture. (Venezuelan government sources have refused to clarify his position.) And his wife has worked in a variety of public roles throughout the Chavez administration including, currently, as head of public relations for the Agriculture ministry.

By exposing a possible link between the Chávez government and an international terror conspiracy, the indictment is a particularly hot potato in the lap of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose warm relations with Venezuela's strong man have yielded invaluable commercial advantages for Spanish multinationals. As U.S.-Venezuelan ties have worsened over the past ten years, Spanish firms have swarmed to do business in Venezuela. Today, 55 percent of Venezuela's third-largest bank is owned by Spain's sprawling BBVA bank; the country's leading mobile phone network is owned by Telefónica, Spain's privatized telecoms giant; the largest of its new electric power plants are being built by Spanish energy companies Iberdrola and Elecnor; and some of its biggest new oil contracts are going to Spanish oil giant Repsol.

Additionally, in a quirk of timing, the Venezuelan Navy received the first of four military patrol ships from Spanish shipbuilder Navantia just one day after the ETA-FARC indictment was handed down. In effect, Spain is now selling military hardware to a country whose government allegedly sponsors a terrorist group plotting aggression against the Spanish state.

No issue is as politically sensitive in Spain as Basque terrorism, so it's hardly surprising that opposition conservatives have wasted no time slamming the Zapatero government. Jorge Moragas, foreign affairs spokesman for the conservative People’s Party, decried the “excessive closeness between” Venezuela and Spain, and the party’s secretary general has called on Zapatero to consider breaking diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

But such a move would likely spur Venezuela to expropriate Spanish investments, which would freeze the profits of Madrid's multinationals (we're talking billions of euros) in Caracas. It wouldn’t be the first time Chávez has muscled his international business partners: Two years ago, his government shut down most commerce with Colombia over Uribe’s allegation that Venezuela was funding Marxist guerillas, and launched a wave of expropriations against its neighbor that continues to this day. In other words, Chávez has leverage with Spain, he knows it, and he's not afraid to use it.

This might explain why Madrid has treaded so carefully on the indictment crisis. Zapatero has mildly said he would seek “explanations” from the Venezuelan government and proceed accordingly. But even that formulation drew an angry response from the bombastic Chávez. He blustered in a recent speech, "I don’t have to explain anything, not to Zapatero or anyone!” 

In response, Spain’s foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, hurried to note that Spanish authorities were merely seeking “information” in the case, not “explanations.” But this deference left Zapatero's government exposed to fire on the domestic front. Conservative leader Mariano Rajoy called his country's virtual apology to Chávez “absolutely grotesque.”

This paints a vivid picture of the political corner Zapatero’s government has backed itself into: Protect Spanish investment in Venezuela, and you’re soft on ETA, but make a principled stand, and you put hundreds of Spanish jobs at risk. Signs so far indicate the government will swallow hard and continue to placate Venezuela. But what happens if, next week (or next month, or next year), a high-profile Colombian public figure takes a trip to Spain and gets shot in the back of the head?

Francisco Toro blogs about Venezuela in the Chávez era at Caracas Chronicles.

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