CHAVEZ IN DECLINE
Venezuela's anti-American president, Hugo Chavez, is losing influence throughout Latin America, even in countries headed by center-left leaders who rejected his radical socialism, according to a former ambassador who also criticized congressional Democrats for opposing a free-trade deal with the pro-American government of Colombia.
Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica's ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, said Mr. Chavez is becoming increasingly autocratic in his own country and threatening to other nations because of a huge military buildup fueled by high oil prices.
"With his 'Bolivarian' revolution discredited both at home and abroad, Chavez's desperate hope is that militaristic nationalism will strike a chord," Mr. Daremblum wrote in an analysis of Mr. Chavez's latest acquisition of Russian weapons and of his attempts to hide the damage to the economy from his socialist policies.
Mr. Chavez last month purchased about $2 billion in Russian arms on a trip to Moscow, Mr. Daremblum said, referring to Russia press accounts. The Venezuelan strongman previously bought $4.5 billion in arms from Russia.
"He claims, absurdly, that he is preparing for a U.S. invasion. In fact, his military buildup is intended to consolidate his power and intimidate his neighbors," said Mr. Daremblum, now director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
Mr. Daremblum said Mr. Chavez's influence is shrinking to some of the poorest countries in Latin America, including Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
"Although the full extent of [Mr. Chavez's] mismanagement has been camouflaged by high energy prices ... , he is wrecking the Venezuelan economy," Mr. Daremblum said. "The health care system has deteriorated alarmingly, and food shortages remain a persistent problem.
"Corruption is widespread, and rampant crime has earned [the capital] Caracas its reputation as the most dangerous city in the Western Hemisphere."
Meanwhile, other Latin American leaders have pursued free-market policies instead of Mr. Chavez's "radical anti-capitalist" programs, Mr. Daremblum said.
He cited center-left leaders like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Alan Garcia of Peru and Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay as "pragmatic" and "market-oriented" presidents who have rejected Mr. Chavez's policies.
Mr. Daremblum urged the United States to avoid "a war of words" with Mr. Chavez because that only emboldens his "brazen and blustery" image among his supporters.
"Instead we should take practical steps to strengthen relations with Colombia, Brazil, Peru and other South American democracies," he said.
As for Colombia, Mr. Daremblum denounced the "utterly shameful" opposition from congressional Democrats to a free-trade deal with the United States.
"How can we treat Colombia so poorly and expect other countries to view us as a credible partner?" he asked.
Foreign visitors in Washington this week include:
• Efraim Inbar, political science professor at Israel's Bar-Han University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He addresses the Middle East Institute on the threats posed by Iran's nuclear program.
• Marwan Muasher, Jordan's deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2005, foreign minister from 2002 to 2004 and ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2002. He also served as Jordan's first ambassador to Israel after the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994. He addresses the Middle East Institute on his new book on Arab diplomacy, "The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation."
• Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail James Morrison