CARACAS — Facing increasing international criticism for alleged support of terrorists, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez denounced a report by international investigators that authenticated laptop computers belonging to the slain leader of a Colombian guerrilla group.
The laptops, recovered after a missile attack March 1 on a rebel camp inside Ecuador, revealed thousands of pages of secret rebel documents and e-mail correspondence between top commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, shedding unprecedented light on the murky dealings of the FARC, including arms purchases and what appears to be collusion with Venezuelan military officials.
At a wildly theatrical press conference Thursday, Chavez mocked the report by Interpol as "the show of clowns" and called the U.S. official who led the investigation "a gringo policeman."
But the politically volatile laptops belonging to guerrilla leader Raul Reyes have led to calls in some quarters for Venezuela to be placed on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This would have huge implications for the $50-billion annual trade between the United States and Venezuela, including oil shipments that account for 10 percent to 12 percent of U.S. imports.
In Venezuela, the laptop scandal does not appear to have dented popular support for Chavez. The current crisis could even boost Chavez's bedrock support among the country's poor, who make up 40 percent of the population, according to pollster Luis Vicente Leon.
"The (laptop) conflict with Colombia is a win-win situation for Chavez," he said. "For the majority of Venezuelans it's an abstraction, completely removed from their daily lives."
Chavez has used the laptop issue as a political tool to fire up nationalist sentiment, painting Colombia as a servile ally of President Bush, whom he calls "Mister Danger," and U.S. "imperial" designs over the region.
It's not that Venezuelans support the FARC, a 20,000-strong guerrilla group that has been blacklisted by the United States as a terrorist organization, he added. Most Venezuelans oppose the FARC's tactics, which include holding some 700 hostages in Colombia, as well as extortion and cocaine trafficking.
When Chavez recently advocated recognizing the FARC as legitimate belligerents in Colombia's internal conflict, polls show only 18.8 percent of Venezuelans supported him.
To be sure, the evidence retrieved from the laptop hard drives appears to be extraordinarily embarrassing to the Chavez government. Some e-mail exchanges concerned Venezuelan offers to help the rebels obtain surface-to-air missiles for use against Colombian military helicopters and jets.
The information in the documents is almost impossible to verify, analysts say, and in some cases could be the product of exaggerated claims by rebel members to their commanders, as well as hearsay or simple disinformation.
While some critics of Chavez will be sure to seek punitive actions, that remains a tough call for Washington, which is acutely aware of how it might play into Chavez's nationalist rhetoric, as well as the potential impact on U.S. oil imports.
Placing Venezuela on the terrorist list remains unlikely for now, according to U.S. officials and members of Congress.
In a speech this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, said the laptop files contained "troubling" evidence of collusion between Venezuelan officials and the FARC. But he stopped short of accusing the government of sponsoring terrorism.
Venezuela's government "will either have to commit itself to using its relationship with the FARC to promote peace or it will have to explain why members of its government are conspiring against a democratic neighbor," Shannon said.
"I don't think we should have a knee-jerk reaction here," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. "The last thing we want to do is throw Chavez a rope by getting into a confrontation with him."