To ensure that Latin America remains a zone of relative peace, the Obama administration should work with our neighbors to promote norms that allow countries to procure weapons for legitimate self-defense but not for regional destabilization.
It also could push for ammunition markings to simplify monitoring of smuggling, and for Senate ratification of the 1997 Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials, which most countries in the hemisphere - including Venezuela - already have ratified.
Episodic U.S. engagement in the Western Hemisphere has helped Mr. Chavez’s populist demagoguery gain traction at home and in Bolivia and Nicaragua, and the Bush administration’s efforts to denounce him actually have strengthened his hand.
But Washington’s distraction elsewhere also has encouraged countries in the region to become more self-sufficient in addressing their security needs. Leaders in Brazil, Argentina and Chile have chosen to cooperate on defense and security issues. South American military units are major contributors to the U.N. peace operation in Haiti.
The newly formed South American Cooperation Council (UNASUR) was called upon to defuse a potentially violent situation in Bolivia. Moreover, the conflict prevention mechanisms of the Organization of American States were used when Colombian aircraft strayed into Ecuadorian airspace in pursuit of narco-terrorists.
A recent poll by Latinobarometro - an annual public opinion survey conducted in 18 countries in Latin America - reflected not only the loss of U.S. influence in the hemisphere, but also a strong desire for a more collegial relationship with Washington.
This is an important opening that the Obama administration seems poised to seize.
Our regional security policy should embrace a renewed commitment to multilateral approaches to addressing mutual security concerns, including the fight against terrorism, organized crime, gang violence and narco-traffickers.
A more sustained U.S. engagement in political and security cooperation with countries in the region will reinforce our good intentions, strengthen the resolve of partners to do more, and provide an effective antidote to both Mr. Chavez’s demagoguery and Russia’s destabilizing meddling in hemispheric affairs.
• Stephen J. Flanagan is director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs. Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate of CSIS’ Americas Program.