KUHNER: Dancing with dictators

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COMMENTARY:

President Obama has put democracy and human rights on the back burner at least in Latin America. Our celebrity in chief achieved his fundamental goal at the recent Summit of the Americas: He got the region’s dictators to like him.

Rather than vigorously defend American interests and values, Mr. Obama used the occasion to cozy up to Venezuela’s strong man, Hugo Chavez. Mr. Obama referred to Mr. Chavez as his “amigo.” The photograph of the leader of the Free World shaking hands with a smiling Mr. Chavez was seen all across the world.

Mr. Obama’s embrace of the Venezuelan autocrat was not only unseemly. It sent a powerful signal to pro-democracy dissidents everywhere that the United States is willing to turn a blind eye to brutal repression. It was a betrayal of the countless political victims tortured and beaten in jails in Caracas and Havana.

Mr. Chavez is a thug who has dismantled Venezuela’s democracy. His regime cracks down on opponents. It controls the media. It rigs elections. It has abrogated the country’s independent judiciary. It has erected a socialist command economy. Its fiery class warfare, confiscatory taxation, nationalization of key industries, regulatory assaults on business, and massive public spending have destroyed the once-prosperous middle class and driven away much-needed foreign investment. Venezuela has become an economic basket case.

Moreover, Mr. Chavez has used the country’s vast oil wealth to export his Bolivarian, anti-American revolution. Mr. Chavez is an authoritarian Marxist who views himself as the ideological heir to Cuba’s Fidel Castro; Mr. Chavez is the new Latin leftist on the block who will stand up to the ugly gringo, decrying American “imperialism” and “capitalism.”

For Mr. Chavez, Mr. Castro’s island prison is the model for the region. Hence, the Venezuelan regime props up its allies in Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua. It supports the FARC terrorists in Colombia, seeking to destabilize a key democratic U.S. ally.

The Chavez regime aids drug traffickers - especially those importing narcotics into the United States, poisoning our nation’s youth. It has forged close ties with China and Russia. It publicly backs Iran’s drive for nuclear technology. In short, Mr. Chavez has transformed Venezuela into a key member of the international anti-American axis.

Yet, instead of using the summit as a golden opportunity to criticize the Venezuelan bully, Mr. Obama did the very opposite: He articulated a desire for dialogue and appeasement. This showed that Washington is unable - and unwilling - to protect American national interests. It marks an abandonment of the human rights activists in Venezuela and Cuba: The United States cares more about winning favor among tyrants than speaking up on behalf of the voiceless.

Mr. Obama is also shifting policy toward Cuba. His administration has relaxed restrictions on travel and remittances to the island nation. U.S. telecommunications companies are lining up to do business. President Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother, says he is willing to discuss any issue with Washington - including political and economic liberalization. That is a lie.

Raul Castro knows perfectly well that, if Cuba’s repressive system is opened up, it will lead to the same fate as the former Soviet bloc - the collapse of communism. What he really wants is to continue skimming large amounts of the remittances sent by hardworking Cuban-Americans; it is a naked ploy to further enrich himself and his allies.

For years, the American left has romanticized the Cuban revolution. Referring to Fidel Castro, novelist Norman Mailer said: “You are the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second World War.” Cuba has been falsely portrayed as a utopia, characterized by universal literacy, world-class government health care and economic equality.

The reality, however, is very different - and much more brutal. More than 1 million have left to foreign shores - about 14 percent of Cubans have fled the totalitarian dictatorship. Cuba is one of the poorest nations in the region, crippled by bureaucratic sadism and state socialism. The country’s infrastructure is crumbling, its health care system is in tatters; its economy is stagnant and many of its people are miserable. The regime has created a two-tier society: a tiny, wealthy communist elite and the vast majority struggling for subsistence.

Mr. Chavez and the Castros demonstrate that utopianism leads to gangsterism. For all their bluster, however, they do not represent the future. They represent the past - the kind of corrupt, dishonest caudillos previously common in Latin America. By seeking their approval and good will, Mr. Obama has shown that his diplomatic offensive is not only naive and craven, but reactionary.

Democracy and a market economy trump socialist authoritarianism. An old-fashioned Yankee jingoist or any patriot who understands America’s historic role in the world would have had the courage - and conviction - to state this. But that would offend foreign despots: Our celebrity in chief prefers a photo-op and a round of applause from the gallery.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington think tank.

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