Obama freezes out Chavez, while Iran comes courting

Not even a mention in trip to region

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During his five-day tour of Latin America, President Obama covered just about every hot-button topic - Libya, drug violence, immigration, trade - but not once did he publicly mention Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The omission stands in stark contrast to the danger that analysts say Mr. Chavez poses to U.S. foreign policy with his ever-deepening ties to Iran and continued support for guerrilla groups across Latin America.

Allies are worried about him, as is the American foreign policy establishment, which in confidential diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks expressed their concern about his ties to Cuban intelligence services and his growing “Bolivarian” alliance of anti-U.S. states.

But even amid reports that Iran could be mining for uranium in Venezuela under the guise of a tractor factory, Mr. Obama remained silent on the case of Mr. Chavez and even went out of his way not to mention his name or country when asked about the issue by a Miami Herald columnist last week.

“They’re consistently cavalier about our Hugo Chavez problem,” said Joel D. Hirst, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who closely tracks U.S. foreign policy in the region. “I think it’s a mixture of a little bit naivete on the part of the administration not understanding what he’s up to, and maybe the belief that if they don’t rock the boat, maybe he’ll go away.”

Mr. Obama famously shook hands with Mr. Chavez, fulfilling a campaign vow to meet with the leaders of U.S. enemies, during their first meeting at a regional summit in April 2009. At that meeting, the Venezuelan strongman also gave the new president a book accusing the U.S. of exploiting Latin America.

Since then, Mr. Obama’s snubbing of Mr. Chavez doesn’t represent much of a break from President George W. Bush, who likewise ignored the fiery Venezuelan even as he called Mr. Bush “the devil” in a speech to the U.N. and publicly taunted him during his 2007 trip to Brazil.

Instead, analysts say, it’s in relations with U.S. allies in the region - particularly Colombia, which has served as a critical counterweight to Venezuela in the past - that the Obama administration seems to be deviating from its predecessor.

Mr. Bush had a close relationship with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who likened Mr. Chavez to Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler and vigorously opposed the Venezuelan leader’s support of Marxist guerrillas, nearly coming to blows with him at a summit in February 2010, according to WikiLeaks.

In 2006, Mr. Bush made a free-trade pact with Mr. Uribe’s government and paid a visit to Colombia in 2007.

Mr. Obama has yet to send the long-stalled trade deal to Congress, and he avoided Colombia on his recent tour of Latin America, stopping only in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

Mr. Hirst said Mr. Obama is failing to shore up the U.S. ally’s new government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, which has overseen a thaw in relations with the Chavez regime.

The administration says it is working behind the scenes to maintain a strong coalition of allies.

“As evidenced by the president’s recent trip, we are focused on working with capable partners like those he visited, along with key partners like Mexico, Colombia, and Peru to advance U.S. national interests in the Americas,” a senior administration official said. “At the same time, as evidenced by recent testimony by Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton and Assistant Secretary [Arturo] Valenzuela, we are closely monitoring compliance with non-proliferation responsibilities and with [U.N. Security Council] sanctions against Iran by all countries in the region, including Venezuela.”

Some signs suggest that Venezuelan clout in the region may be slipping. Mr. Chavez failed in his push to have Cuba allowed without condition to join the Organization of American States, and he and the leftist regime in Nicaragua lost two otherwise unanimous OAS votes last year favoring U.S. ally Costa Rica in its border dispute with Managua.

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About the Author
Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland

Kara Rowland, White House reporter for The Washington Times, is a D.C.-area native. She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she studied American government and spent nearly all her waking hours working as managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, UVa.’s student newspaper.

Her interest in political reporting was piqued by an internship at Roll Call the summer before her ...

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