- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

At 79, Fidel Castro has outlasted 10 U.S. presidents, outfoxed 15 directors of Central Intelligence, defeated a U.S.-organized invasion by Cuban exiles, survived multiple botched CIA assassination attempts, the Cuban missile crisis, a 45-year-long U.S. embargo, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which abruptly ended an annual subsidy of $4 billion, and found a worthy successor.

He is Fidel with money. Big money. Where Mr. Castro may be flagging, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is a Latin American firebrand who is now in total control of the world’s 5th largest oil-producing country. The U.S. gets 15 percent of its oil from Venezuela and Mr. Chavez is now threatening to bypass major oil companies and sell it directly to U.S. consumers. With oil at $60 a barrel, Venezuela’s daily output of 2.6 million barrels brings in $156 million every 24 hours. Mr. Chavez’s opponents all seemed to have sustained charisma bypasses. He has charisma to spare and millions to give away to the poor.

His first state visit as president was to China where he embarrassed his hosts by praising Mao. His best new friends included Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, Iran’s theocrats, North Korea’s hermit Communist monarch. He has also given privileged sanctuaries to Colombia’s Marxist FARC drug-dealing guerrillas. More importantly, he has a huge following among countless millions of poor Latinos. He is Robin Hood in Che Guevara clothing, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, including free hospitals staffed by 17,000 Cuban doctors and dentists. The mentoring was entirely done by Mr. Castro. They see each other frequently. This week Mr. Chavez returned from four days in Cuba with Mr. Castro who is also a frequent traveler to Caracas. This time the odd couple did a joint six-hour broadcast in which they said the real global troublemakers were, of course, U.S. imperialists.

Mr. Chavez is not a social democrat, but a Marxist believer, unencumbered by fealty to the klutzy Soviet leaders of yesteryear, and therefore more attractive to working classes that he constantly agitates against the “rancid oligarchy.” He easily (58 percent to 42 percent) beat a recall vote in August 2004, certified by Jimmy Carter as fair. While the U.S. has been fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two-thirds of Latin American governments have taken a left turn.

Mr. Chavez has staged a mock trial of President Bush and refers to him as an imperialist “Mr. Danger.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is Mr. Danger 2. Mr. Rumsfeld earned his ranking as he makes quick trips to various central and South American capitals in an attempt to stiffen the linguini spines that continue to give Mr. Chavez the benefit of the doubt.

The European Union has mandated the Spanish government to deal with Mr. Chavez because of Spain’s historic ties with Latin America. And Madrid’s socialist government reports back to the Eurocrats in Brussels that all is well and that the Bush administration is, like in Iraq, exaggerating the danger of a 21st century Mr. Castro.

Mr. Rumsfeld has urged Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and others to open their eyes and see Mr. Chavez and his brand of internationalism as a danger for all moderate governments. But Lula has got his own problems with the largest corruption scandal in the country’s history and his own Workers’ Party (PT) about to turn further left.

The new secretary general of the OAS, Chile’s Jose Miguel Insulza, complains to his colleagues about “constant U.S. carping on Venezuela.”

So far, the only serious thing the Bush administration has done vis—vis Mr. Chavez was to cancel the visas of ranking Venezuelan military officers involved in the cocaine smuggling business. Defending the officers and vowing retaliation against the U.S. is Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, the same statesman who, on visiting France, met with an authentic terrorist, Venezuelan-born Carlos the Jackal, aka Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, called him a “caballero,” and pronounced him not guilty unless he was convicted in a “Venezuelan court of law.”

In Venezuela, land is being expropriated from wealthy landlords, including foreign-owned farms, with no compensation, and turned over to machete-wielding peasants who perform victory jigs for foreign television crews. Mr. Chavez has the combustible materials to fire up a revolution. Five percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land and 75 percent of the people live below the poverty line, 40 percent in “critical poverty.”

Caracas, surrounded by slums that cling like barnacles to the high ground, suffered 28,000 homicides in the past five years with only 7 percent that went to trial.

A U.S. diplomat who served in Havana and was later ambassador to Paraguay seems to reflect State Department thinking when he says, “everyone knows there are Cubans and Venezuelans and Venezuelan oil-generated cash in Bolivia, Paraguay and other places. And there is also Hezbollah and Hamas fund-raising and money-laundering in these same countries to support those same organizations in the Middle East.” Trouble is, Mr. Ambassador, everyone does not know all this. The U.S., after all, traditionally cannot focus on more than one, maximum two, foreign policy crises at a time.

Conservative TV evangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson caused an uproar on his daily television 700 Club when he suggested President Bush order the assassination of Mr. Chavez — which he said would be more cost efficient than fighting another $200 billion war. Neither option comes to grips with reality.

Mr. Chavez dead or alive, the U.S. still has a huge image problem in Latin America. The freshly-minted undersecretary of state for public diplomacy has the most challenging assignment in the Bush administration. She should also urge her close friend Condoleezza Rice to replace Mr. Rumsfeld on point in Latin America.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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