The confirmation by an international forensics team that laptops and hard drives captured by Colombia originated in a camp of FARC terrorists ought to open a new era in relations between the democratic world and Hugo Chavez's Venezuelan government. Whether it does will depend to a large extent on how Colombia and the United States handle a rich but tricky diplomatic opportunity.
The computers and drives contain a staggering 610 gigabytes of data, according to Interpol, including 983 encrypted files opened by its team. What is already known is enough to demonstrate that Chavez and senior members of his government, army and intelligence service had a far-reaching clandestine relationship with the FARC and that Venezuela offered the group weapons, money and harbor on its own territory. Ecuador, which under President Rafael Correa has become a Venezuelan satellite, had lesser but also incriminating ties to the group, which specializes in drug trafficking, kidnapping and massacres of civilians.
On its face the evidence is enough to convict Chavez and his collaborators of backing terrorism against a democratic government. If Venezuela were a European or Asian country, it would surely become an international pariah virtually overnight. But Venezuela is in Latin America - where governments are reluctant to criticize their neighbors, terrorist groups professing a left-wing ideology have often won sympathy in Europe and the United States, and demagogues such as Chavez are able to turn hostility from Washington to their advantage. That of course is the Venezuelan strategy: Rather than even attempt to respond to the contents of the laptops, Chavez is describing them as a CIA plot and a pretext for a U.S. invasion.
Therein lies the best approach for Colombia and the United States. Since neither Chavez nor Correa has offered any credible or even serious response to the laptop material, they should be firmly, repeatedly and relentlessly confronted with the evidence and asked for answers. Colombia can do this by petitioning the Organization of American States to determine whether Venezuela and Ecuador have breached its charter; it could also ask the U.N. Security Council to judge whether the two governments violated Resolution 1373, passed in September 2001, which prohibits all states from providing financing or havens to terrorist organizations. President Alvaro Uribe should order that all of the captured material be posted on the Internet. This should at least expose Chavez's behavior to global scrutiny and make it more difficult for countries and political leaders who have tried to ignore or excuse it, ranging from neighbors such as Brazil to some U.S. Democrats.
Some in Congress are already calling for Venezuela to be placed on the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. While the designation may be justified and even mandated by U.S. law, it could simply bolster Chavez's anti-American narrative. A better course would be to single out and sanction Venezuelan companies and individuals compromised by the laptop evidence, such as the generals who have been secretly meeting and doing business with FARC leaders. Punishment of Venezuelans as a whole would serve little purpose. After all, the country recently voted down Chavez's attempt to prolong and institutionalize his rule. If managed correctly, the laptop scandal will surely deepen the domestic political hole into which the would-be "Bolivarian" revolutionary is sinking.