Ignoring Latin America

Pete Souza/White House

President Barack Obama waves to people gathered on the street outside the Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela Community Center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Mar. 20, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • The Obama administration has deluded themselves that all they have to do is ignore Chavez and he'll behave

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  • Without the presidential attention that President Bush brought to the issue, U.S.- Brazilian relations have been adrift

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  • The Chinese are voracious consumers and Chavez has every intention of driving U.S. oil companies out of Venezuela

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During his March, 2011 trip to Latin America, President Obama managed in all of his prepared texts not to mention Venezuela or the threat that we're facing there from China and Iran. Frankly, when I was Assistant Secretary and Ambassador to the OAS during the Bush Administration, the President was preoccupied with many other things. But President Bush cared very much about these issues and he managed to construct some of the best relations that we've had in modern history with Brazil-and that was primarily because of his personal diplomacy with President Lula, a man of the left. He also established extraordinarily important alliances with Colombia and Mexico. Even on the way out the door, President Bush showed real leadership in stepping up and saying we have to help Mexico with the Merida Plan. And in return, the new president, Felipe Calderon, was open like never before to U.S. cooperation across the board to confront this common threat that we face from the narco-terrorist groups that terrorize both of our countries indifferent ways. Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are the three most important relationships in Latin America for the United States, and the Obama administration has succeeded in damaging each of those relationships. Irreplaceable

When President Calderon traveled to Washington in March 2011, he came mostly to raise concerns about the lack of real cooperation under the $1.4 billion Merida Plan. In two years, the Obama administration has spent less than half of that total. The lack of progress has been so manifest that President Calderon used very undiplomatic language to refer to the problems that he was having with our ambassador there, who, through his contacts with the different Mexican agencies, was undermining Calderon's effort to unite them to make it one fight in Mexico. The ambassador, Carlos Pascual, had to resign. This is a nadir in the U.S.-Mexico relationship of the last fifteen years, since the passage of NAFTA.

"The Chinese are voracious consumers and Chavez has every intention of driving U.S. oil companies out of Venezuela." --Roger F. NoriegaOver the last two years, without the presidential attention that President Bush brought to the issue, U.S.- Brazilian relations have been adrift. President Lula wandered off and undermined our efforts, for example, at the U.N. on Iran sanctions with a sort of wildcat diplomacy, making common cause with Turkey and others, to almost give Iran a reprieve from further sanctions, before Hillary Clinton had to step up and save that process.

I'm a little more optimistic about what our relationship will be with the new president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff. Brazil is an important country and we must have strong relations. But, frankly, as I noted, it requires some presidential attention. There are significant economic and political benefits to be had from a good relationship with South America's largest country and one of the most dynamic economies in the world, but we need real leadership from the president.

Finally, with Colombia, we see Hugo Chavez making an extraordinary effort to get close to the Santos government, because he senses that the White House is not paying attention and is not giving Colombia the same kind of backing that President Bush gave President Uribe. And there are practical implications for failing to approve the free trade agreement and the almost hostile relationship of the State Department toward Colombia. We lost Walid Makled, a narco-trafficker kingpin, because Colombia decided to extradite him to Venezuela. He was captured in Colombia under a warrant from the DEA because he's wanted in New York for drug trafficking. Makled has accused forty senior officials of the Venezuelan government of complicity in narcotrafficking. He has ties to the Hezbollah network in South America, which I identified in a recent Washington Post op-ed. But we will not get custody of him because President Santos of Colombia has committed to sending him to Venezuela instead. Venezuela wants him on murder charges. And U.S. authorities are not going to get their hands on him, because the administration failed to act, because they were perfectly comfortable with Santos trying to warm relations up with Venezuela. And the Colombians no doubt gained points within the Obama administration for ignoring the abiding threat that Venezuela and Chavez pose to our interests.

So those are tangible results of a lack of engagement from this administration. They have deluded themselves that all they have to do is ignore Chavez and he'll behave, or not to provoke him and the problem will go away. But let me tell you what is wrong with that. Chavez has succeeded in building strategic relationships with rivals and outright enemies of the United States: Cuba, China, Russia, and Iran. For example, the Chinese are going after Venezuela big time as a source of petroleum. A few years ago, the U.S. imported about 1.7 million barrels a day of oil from Venezuela. Today, we are at about 750,000 barrels a day. The Chinese, about five years ago, were importing 40,000 barrels a day. They're now at 600,000 and the number is growing. They're building the refineries and the tankers that will carry Venezuelan oil to China and replace us completely, because that's the way Chavez wants it. He doesn't want to have any dependence on the United States for that oil. The Chinese are voracious consumers and Chavez has every intention of driving U.S. oil companies out of Venezuela.

The Iran issue in the Western Hemisphere is very troubling. An AEI colleague who focuses on Iran told me that, in his assessment, Iran's relationship with Venezuela is one of Iran's most important, if not the most important, relationship it has in the world. Iran uses Venezuela as a platform to evade international sanctions that are meant to control its rogue nuclear program. Iran is mining uranium today in Venezuela and is trying to obtain nuclear technology. Iran is using Venezuela to project the Hezbollah network into South America. The second-ranking official in the Venezuelan embassy in Damascus, Syria, a man named Ghazi Atef Salameh Nassereddine Abu Ali, coordinates the Hezbollah network in the Western Hemisphere with Iranian support. The heads of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad held a terror summit in Caracas right under the nose of the Obama administration in August 2010. These are people that don't leave their Middle Eastern lairs for fear of assassination. They are wanted people and they're being feted in Caracas and planning operations in our hemisphere. This is a troubling legacy of neglect and, frankly, if it weren't for the United States Congress, we wouldn't be getting anywhere in responding to these provocations. Thankfully we have leaders like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Connie Mack, and others who are stepping up to the plate and forcing the administration to focus on this problem. Law enforcement agencies are active as well-the DEA in particular is trying to get its arms around this issue and has put a lot of resources behind that. And we need Treasury to get into the game to take a look at Venezuela's indispensable role in support for terrorism and for Iran in the Western Hemisphere. I'll stop there and take any questions you might have.


The fact that the United States is, or was, a market for seventy percent of Venezuela's oil is a leash on Chavez. But we won't even jerk that leash, because we're afraid of how he may react. The problem is he wants greater independence, as evidenced by the relationships with Iran, Cuba, China, and Russia. He doesn't want to have any dependence on the U.S. market. So we have basically given Chavez a free pass because, as a State Department official said in June of last year, we hope to continue our mutually beneficial oil relationship. Well, guess what? Chavez doesn't want to continue it. We need to stop pulling our punches. I'm not arguing for war or confrontation or anything like that. But at least recognize and understand what Chavez is up to and organize some sort of policy response internationally to the wrongdoings going on in the region. The real predicament for a post-Chavez government in Venezuela is that it will owe forty billion dollars to the Chinese in oil prices that are below market rate. That is what Chavez conceded to the Chinese. He is so desperate for cash that he committed to them for twenty years, providing oil at a rock bottom rate. The Chinese basically shook him down. And in all likelihood there will be a major confrontation with the U.S. as Chavez pursues his objective to force American oil companies out of Venezuela. He will have to essentially expropriate U.S. property, to an extent we haven't seen in fifty years in this hemisphere.


There was a report yesterday about a possible bill circulating through Congress designating the drug cartels in Mexico as foreign terrorist organizations. Do you think that's a good idea?


To the extent that it allows U.S. law enforcement the ability to use more of its tools to freeze assets, to arrest people, to restrict their movements, yes, it would be a positive development. And one final comment: The Justice Department said last year that the largest organized crime threat in the United States is Mexican drug trafficking organizations. So President Calderon is literally fighting the other end of the same monster that-through a million gang members in the United States that sell cocaine and other drugs on our streets-threatens our own citizens. So it's the United States' fight too and we need to do everything we can to prevail over this menace. It's more than designating them-we need to have the intelligence resources, the law enforcement resources, and the political will to do something about the problem. Thank you.

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