Stand Up to Our Foe Chávez

President Barack Obama's new envoy for Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, assumed his post early this month, and his first challenge will be reminding his team that the United States is one of a handful of countries that has enemies whether we want them or not. And, ignoring our friends or our foes usually leaves us with more of the latter and with everyone in between having little use for us either.

For the past several years, U.S. diplomats have mastered the art of looking unprovoked by the anti-American agenda pressed by Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, embattled democrats and beleaguered friends might easily mistake our reticence for indifference.

Far from calming the waters, U.S. passivity has left Chávez to his work. Setting aside the damage he's done in his own country, he has gutted the region's historic commitment to promote and defend democracy in the Americas, emboldening a cadre of Chavista caudillos (strongmen) who are wrecking the rule of law in a half-dozen countries.

The United States can help to prevent a border war by asking other key nations in the region to join us in sending quiet but unambiguous signals that Venezuelan aggression is unacceptable.

He has waged an illegal proxy war against Colombia for the better part of a decade, yet he was able to rally most South American governments to critique efforts by Colombia to defend itself. He has surrendered Venezuelan territory to drug traffickers and given rifles, rockets and cash to terrorists. He has provided material, financial and diplomatic backing to the nuclear rogue, Iran. And, he has put his military on a war footing against neighboring Colombia (and, implicitly, the United States) twice in the past two years.

Our only significant diplomatic response toward Chávez in the past 12 months has been to restore full relations with Caracas in July. It appears that our passivity has left our friends in the region exposed, with many others falling in line with Chávez or turning a blind eye to any threat.

For all these reasons, Valenzuela, the new assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, must move quickly to lift U.S. diplomacy out of its defensive crouch and to convince our friends in the region that U.S. quiescence has proven provocative.

The stakes are rising. For starters, a military confrontation between Venezuela and Colombia would be an extraordinary tragedy. Too many Colombians and Venezuelans already are dying every day, thanks to Chávez--because of his support for narcoguerrillas or his tolerance of criminal gangs that have made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The United States can help to prevent a border war by asking other key nations in the region to join us in sending quiet but unambiguous signals that Venezuelan aggression is unacceptable.

The Bush-legacy defense cooperation agreement--which was signed earlier this month to formalize U.S. access to seven Colombian facilities for anti-drug missions--is a good start. The Obama administration should also work with the Democratic Congress to ensure full funding to anti-narcotics assistance, with the Colombians assuming a bigger share of these costs each year. We should bear in mind that cutting cocaine and heroin exports to the United States delivers tremendous benefits to the security of every American, every day.

As Chávez and his client states consciously close their markets to Colombian exports for political reasons, ratification of the trade agreement that is now languishing in the U.S. Congress will bolster an ally in the war on illegal drugs.

The deal would level the playing field for U.S. exporters, reducing tariffs on all U.S. goods entering Colombia; 80 percent of Colombia's products already enjoy duty-free access to the U.S. market under a 1991 anti-drug program. Moreover, without the trade accord in place, the United States will lose a privileged position in one of South America's most dynamic economies, as Colombia moves to open its market to about 40 other nations.

In one compelling example, if Canada's Parliament moves faster than our Congress to approve a trade agreement with Colombia, U.S. farmers will pay dearly as their Canadian competitors expect to double or triple their sales as Colombia phases out tariffs on wheat, barley, beef and pork producers. U.S. farmers now sell about $1.7 billion in products to Colombia, but they stand to lose unless our Congress acts quickly to secure that market.

The new leader of President Obama's Latin America team has his work cut out for him, because the Chávez threat has grown just as solidarity in the region has dwindled. The first order of business should be a thorough inter-agency assessment of Chávez's asymmetrical campaign against the United States and its allies.

Any fair appraisal would conclude that passivity is not a policy, and just because we don't want any trouble with Chávez doesn't mean that he doesn't want trouble with us.

Roger F. Noriega is a visiting fellow at AEI.

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