Originally: Winning Hearts and Minds

April 9, 2004; Page A9

Venezuela has retained the Washington law firm Patton Boggs to give its image a Washington make-over. “We are advising them to improve U.S.-Venezuelan relations,” a consultant at the firm says.

This is hilarious. Imagine all the suits in the boardroom thinking real hard about how to get Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to lose the red beret and stop referring to George Bush, on national television, as an uncomplimentary part of the human anatomy.

Of course that’s no small job, which may be why Patton Boggs, which says it signed up the Embassy of Venezuela in September 2003, is raking in a fee that annualizes at more than $1 million a year. The firm wouldn’t speak about that obscene figure. “That’s your job,” I was told when I asked the price. But U.S. Justice Department filings show that, in the last three months of 2003, Venezuela coughed up $309,992 for Patton Boggs’s help. In the same filing, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., the Boggs of Patton Boggs, reports that on Sept. 25, 2003, he gave the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee $10,000. Mr. Boggs and other employees of the firm made contributions to a variety of other candidates — including Bush-Cheney ’04 — of up to $2,000, but Mr. Boggs’ gift of $10,000 stands out for its generosity.

Now, as more than a few cynics put it last year when former Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp showed up at the Journal flacking for the Chavez government, everybody has to make a living. No grown-up is going to have a fainting spell over revelations that K-Street lobbyists are doing what they do, even if it is for bad actors like Mr. Chavez.

On the other hand, a little transparency — beyond obscure filings at the Justice Department — is in order. The reason Chavez influence peddling is so disturbing is that it is nearly the same strategy that Haitian tyrant Jean Bertrand Aristide used to get U.S. acquiescence to his murderous behavior for a decade. We know how that one turned out.

Haitians finally chased Mr. Aristide out of the country six weeks ago. But Americans are now paying a price for the benign approach taken by the U.S. at the behest of his friends and business associates in Washington. At this very moment over 1,900 U.S. troops are in Haiti trying to disarm violent militias and restore the peace. Secretary of State Colin Powell was in Port-au-Prince on Monday and said he is concerned about the private armies Mr. Aristide left behind.

How did Mr. Aristide, who was a known practitioner of violence get the U.S. to restore him to power in 1994 and then to tolerate his malevolence for 10 years? The answer is that he bought influence in Washington in much the same way Mr. Chavez is trying to do now.

Former Congressman Ron Dellums, Randall Robinson’s wife Hazel Ross-Robinson and Florida lawyer Ira Kurzban are all crying the blues over Mr. Aristide’s demise but not because of what the little defrocked priest did for Haitians. What each of these Washington operators lost at the end of February was an all-you-can-eat meal ticket.

U.S. Justice Department records show that the firms of Mr. Dellums and of Ms. Ross-Robinson and Mr. Kurzban’s law firm were all big beneficiaries of Mr. Aristide’s influence buying in Washington. The Washington Times has reported that Mr. Dellums, who threw his weight around with the Congressional Black Caucus on Mr. Aristide’s behalf, received $571,326 in 2001 and 2002 from the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The story also said that Ms. Ross-Robinson took in $367,967. Still, those two were under-performers compared to Mr. Kurzban, whose work for Mr. Aristide from 1997 through 2002 yielded, according to the Times report, $5.38 million.

Lobbyists make their livings lobbying, of course. But these sizable fees paid by a desperately poor nation hearken back to Christopher Caldwell’s observations on Mr. Aristide as a Washington operator in the July 1994 American Spectator. In that story Mr. Caldwell detailed the Haitian’s skill in working the U.S. capital: “How the administration came to condone and promote this kind of slow-motion Great Terror — that is, how Aristide’s policy became our policy — is a story of the distortions that result when virtually the entire budget of a sovereign nation is funneled into a massive Washington lobbying and public-relations campaign.”

Mr. Chavez has big bucks too and far more dangerous predilections. Like Mr. Aristide he has armed paramilitaries to enforce his rule. But there are also reports that he has been giving safe haven to Colombian guerrillas inside the Venezuelan border, and that he has been funding radicalized Indian militants in Bolivia. The evidence spilling out in Washington suggests that the Patton Boggs strategy involves getting policy makers to disbelieve what has been reported from the region. The consultant I spoke to said the plan involves lobbying U.S. congressmen and “could” involve calling on the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

It’s pretty clear, though, that Patton Boggs sees Senate Democrats as the flabby, soft underbelly of U.S. foreign policy, starting with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd. As the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee for the Western Hemisphere, Mr. Dodd defended Mr. Chavez in April 2002 when the Venezuelan military removed him rather than follow his orders to attack a crowd of civilian demonstrators. When an Inspector General’s report cleared the Bush administration of any role in that event, Mr. Dodd retreated in silence on the subject of Venezuela.

Dispassionate observers give chances for the Patton Boggs mission long odds. U.S. policy makers will balance the lobbyist claims against all the evidence that trusting Hugo Chavez is a bad idea. Nevertheless, it’s an election year and Democrats have a mighty interest in restoring their power. That means they need money and they need to show that George Bush is in trouble in the world. What is worrying is that Mr. Chavez might be able to help them with both.