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As with any bully, to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, weakness is a provocation. A self-defined enemy of the U.S., Chávez is running amok and challenging us at every turn–testing whether we care enough to defend our principles or stand by our allies. Congress is right to insist that the Obama administration prove that it understands the Chávez threat, and it is putting a policy in place to protect our interests close to home.
Chávez’s latest assault on U.S. security interests centers on Colombia’s plans to allow our security personnel to use Colombian bases as part of our long-standing anti-drug cooperation. With great fanfare, Chávez has threatened trade ties with Colombia and instructed his military to be prepared for a confrontation, declaring on Aug. 9, “I call on the people and the armed forces, let’s go, ready for combat!”
Chávez must know that ordering his corrupted, politicized and badly outnumbered military into what would be a humiliating confrontation with battle-hardened Colombian troops would likely be the last command Lieutenant Colonel Chávez ever barks. But he has other objectives. By rattling sabers in the direction of a traditional rival, Chávez hopes to distract his countrymen from his legacy at home: a budding dictatorship, deadly streets, thuggish politics and a corrupted, disintegrating economy. By couching the U.S.-Colombia cooperation as “gringo” interference, he seeks to weaken the only government in the region that resists his aggressive agenda, rally anti-U.S. sentiments to his side and test whether the U.S. will finally push back.
Unchecked, Chávez’s aggression has moved beyond bombast. Brushing off his crude insults against our country and its leaders is not a sufficient response to very real threats. Chávez has converted his once-proud nation into a personalized regime whose vast oil wealth and regional clout are used to drive his aggressive, antidemocratic vision in a region ripe for destabilization. His acolytes in Bolivia and Ecuador have followed Chávez’s lead in gutting anti-drug cooperation and abetting narcoguerrillas. He has used petrodollars to buy influence in weaker states (El Salvador, Honduras and much of the Caribbean) and to meddle in the internal politics of powerful nations (Argentina, Peru and Mexico). Other regional powers, notably Brazil and even the U.S., have been so busy appearing unperturbed by Chávez’s infantile antics that they have failed to check his growing influence.
Unchallenged in a growing number of nations, Chávez and his followers have dismantled institutions and concentrated power in the hands of unaccountable caudillos (strongmen)–replacing weak but nascent democracies with divisive, destructive regimes. Regional diplomats have refused to defend the rule of law against these thuggish tactics. But, when Hondurans sought to interpret and apply their own constitution to defend their institutions against one such would-be caudillo, Chávez herded regional diplomats to defend the right of his puppet to break the rules and grab power.
Chávez’s aggression is more than political–it is tangible, and it is growing. He declared recently that the “winds of war are blowing” in Latin America. Of course, Chávez was not referring to the illegal proxy war he has been waging against Colombia for the better part of a decade or his relentless offensive against U.S. interests in the region. Instead, he has criticized Colombians for daring to defend themselves against his narcoterrorist chums by hosting U.S. law enforcement and security forces at a handful of military bases.
Chávez’s agents have been caught red-handed providing anti-tank rockets, small arms, munitions and money to guerrillas waging an illegal war against a sovereign neighbor. Material evidence of Chávez’s support for international terrorist organizations has been virtually ignored by the international community. However, those same governments have rushed to criticize Colombia’s defensive moves. Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva said of the U.S.-Colombia accord, “I don’t like the idea.” Argentina’s President Christina Kirchner said the arrangement represented “unacceptable belligerence.” And Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa called any U.S. presence in the region a “provocation.” The sovereignty-conscious leaders appear to be suggesting that Colombia is the only nation on earth that does not have the right to make decisions for itself on how to secure its own territory.
Chávez is abetting Iran’s illegal nuclear program by allowing that rogue nation to mine uranium in Venezuela’s Bolivar province, helping it win diplomatic support in the Americas, and permitting it to evade United Nations sanctions by using Venezuela’s corrupted banking sector.
Several U.S. senators have taken the lead to demand an appraisal of the Venezuela threat. Tasked by Ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Richard Lugar, the General Accountability Office last month released a damning report confirming that Chávez’s corrupt cronies are complicit in the deadly drug trade. Also last month, the Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Mel Martinez requiring the director of National Intelligence to assess and report on the impact of Chávez’s terrorism ties, military buildup and subversion on U.S. interests in the region. Sen. Jim DeMint has used the nominations of several Obama appointees to lead the Senate in a thorough review of Latin American policy and the need for an effective response.
President Obama should use this congressional interest to leverage increased support for U.S. interests in the region. First, he should insist that the intelligence community deliver Congress and the American people a candid assessment of the acute and growing threat posed by Chávez’s regime. Once his new Latin America team–led by able and experienced diplomat Arturo Valenzuela–is in place, he should instruct them to design and implement a tough strategy to deal with these troubling challenges. Second, he should press forward with plans to upgrade security ties with Colombia and should offer a mutual defense agreement to that and any other friendly country in the region.
Third, he should set aside narrow interests of labor bosses and press for urgent congressional approval of pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. Fourth, he should urge Congress to fully fund his request for aid to Colombia and the rest of the Americas. Fifth, he should take a personal role in urging his counterparts to work with the U.S. to save regional democracy from Chávez’s divisive diplomacy–beginning with finding effective new leadership at the feckless Organization of American States.
President Obama’s quest for conciliation and dialogue has been misread by Chávez as a lack of will. By putting a policy and a strong team in place that meets the Chávez challenge on all fronts, Obama will send a message to friends and foes alike that the U.S. will mount a vigorous defense of essential security, key allies and fundamental values.
Roger F. Noriega is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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