Threats in our own back­yard

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

It is high time the U.S. gov­ern­ment stopped ig­nor­ing mul­ti­ple threats to U.S. in­ter­ests and se­cu­rity in our own part of the world. The Mid­dle East and the Cau­ca­sus are im­por­tant, but at least equally im­por­tant is the re­gion we our­selves in­habit.

Ge­orge W. Bush came to of­fice in Jan­uary of 2001 pro­claim­ing that Latin Amer­ica would be at the top of his list of for­eign pol­icy pri­or­i­ties.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, the in­va­sion of Afghanistan, the in­va­sion of Iraq and al­most to­tal con­cen­tra­tion of the at­ten­tion of the gov­ern­ment on the Mid­dle East and the strug­gle against ter­ror­ism. Latin Amer­ica was not just placed on the back burner but was off the stove en­tirely, ex­cept for oc­ca­sional events such as the near-fa­tal ill­ness of Fidel Cas­tro.

Un­for­tu­nately, Latin Amer­ica did not for­get us. While our at­ten­tion was else­where, a wave of rad­i­cal anti-demo­cratic, anti-mar­ket and anti-U.S. regimes emerged in the Hemi­sphere, led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, fat with oil money. He suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing al­lies in Bo­livia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Ar­gentina and only missed Peru and Mex­ico by a hair.

Mr. Chavez’s pro­gres­sive de­struc­tion of democ­racy in Venezuela is well-known: All of the ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions of na­tional gov­ern­ment are now in the hands of ad­min­is­tra­tion sup­port­ers as well as the great ma­jor­ity of state gov­er­nor­ships and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments. The prin­ci­pal op­po­si­tion tele­vi­sion net­work, RCTV, was seized without com­pen­sa­tion and re­main­ing op­po­si­tion me­dia are con­stantly ha­rassed.

The most re­cent out­rage, how­ever, is the dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of 272 mostly op­po­si­tion candidates for gov­er­nor­ships, may­oral­ties and leg­is­la­tures in the Novem­ber state and lo­cal elec­tions, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar can­di­date for mayor of Cara­cas, Leopoldo Lopez. This is di­rectly out of the Ira­nian play­book and the mea­sure is bla­tantly un­con­sti­tu­tional, but nev­er­the­less was val­i­dated by the Chavez-dom­i­nated Supreme Court.

Mr. Chavez has been grad­u­ally na­tion­al­iz­ing the Venezue­lan econ­omy, in­clud­ing tak­ing over power com­pa­nies, banks, the tele­phone com­pany, a steel com­pany and oth­ers. He re­cently is­sued 26 pres­i­den­tial de­crees, in­creas­ing his per­sonal power in both the po­lit­i­cal and econ­omy spheres to that of an open dic­ta­tor­ship. Most of th­ese mea­sures are pre­cisely those the Venezue­lan peo­ple re­jected in the ref­er­en­dum of Dec. 2, 2007.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Venezuela has been en­gaged in mas­sive at­tempts to af­fect po­lit­i­cal out­comes in other Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries, has sup­ported guer­rilla and in­sur­gent move­ments, such as the FARC in Colom­bia, and has pur­chased huge quan­ti­ties of mil­i­tary equip­ment, in­clud­ing sub­marines and ad­vanced fighter planes, far be­yond any pos­si­ble mil­i­tary threat to the coun­try.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly for the na­tional se­cu­rity of the United States and the se­cu­rity of the hemi­sphere, how­ever, has been the Venezue­lan regime’s con­stantly grow­ing ties with Cuba, Rus­sia, China, Be­larus and es­pe­cially Iran. Ira­nian-sup­ported ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as Hezbol­lah, Ha­mas and Is­lamic Ji­had are per­mit­ted to or­ga­nize and raise funds through an ex­ten­sive net­work in Venezuela and else­where in Latin Amer­ica. There are now reg­u­lar flights be­tween Cara­cas and Tehran (in which nor­mal cit­i­zens can­not book pas­sage) and Iran has opened a 100 per­cent-owned bank in Cara­cas, called the Banco In­ter­na­cional de De­sar­rollo, in an ob­vi­ous and ap­par­ently suc­cess­ful at­tempt to by­pass the fi­nan­cial sanc­tions im­posed on Iran by the U.S., Europe and the U.N. The Venezue­lan fi­nan­cial sys­tem is also ex­ten­sively used for the fa­cil­i­ta­tion of of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion and the laun­der­ing of drug-traf­fick­ing funds.

As a fi­nal note, the cur­rent Venezue­lan regime is no­to­ri­ously anti-Semitic, as doc­u­mented by the Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee and oth­ers. Jewish in­sti­tu­tions are fre­quently ha­rassed and gov­ern­ment pub­li­ca­tions print scur­rilous car­toons, rem­i­nis­cent of Nazi Ger­many.

U.S. pol­icy to­wards this clear and im­me­di­ate se­cu­rity threat in our own hemi­sphere has been es­sen­tially pas­sive, as ex­em­pli­fied by the more than tepid re­sponse to the de­crees men­tioned above and the in­val­i­da­tion of candidates for the fall elec­tions. Re­cently Mr. Chavez of­fered Rus­sia space to es­tab­lish mil­i­tary bases while pur­chas­ing more mil­i­tary equip­ment from that coun­try. To this there was no re­ac­tion at all.

It is not nec­es­sary to de­clare Venezuela a state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism in or­der to take the mea­sures nec­es­sary to pro­tect U.S. and hemi­spheric in­ter­ests and se­cu­rity. Most of the co­caine go­ing to Europe now passes through Venezuela and West Africa, a traf­fic pro­tected by the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment. That and the ob­vi­ous as­sis­tance to ter­ror­ist regimes and or­ga­ni­za­tions pro­vide more than suf­fi­cient cover for the mea­sures that should be taken. In par­tic­u­lar, those Venezue­lan fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions pro­vid­ing chan­nels for Iran to evade fi­nan­cial sanc­tions im­posed by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity should be sanc­tioned them­selves.

Nor­man A. Bai­ley is an ad­junct pro­fes­sor of eco­nomic state­craft for the In­sti­tute of World Pol­i­tics.

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