- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 27, 2001

Fidel Castro will soon, we hope go to his grave preaching revolution. While we fight the war against terrorism, we can't afford to just ignore Latin America. Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina are all in crisis, and other nations are soon to join them. It could well be worse, given the relatively small amount of trouble Mr. Castro has been able to stir up lately.
His lack of ability to cause trouble resulted from the sudden bankruptcy of his Soviet puppeteers. With their money, he tried to spread his Stalinist "revolution" as far as Afghanistan, where Cuban soldiers fought alongside the Soviets during their failed attempt to conquer the country. After 1989, the American trade embargo had great effect until European investors recently brought the Cuban economy back to its feet. It is tempting to just sit back and watch Mr. Castro fade into history's dustbin. But the problems he will leave behind should be dealt with while they are still relatively small.
While our attention is focused on the war against terrorism, we must deal with a man who desperately wants to be the next Fidel. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is trying his best to succeed the fading commandante. Since coming to power in 1998, Mr. Chavez has been turning himself into another Castro and trying to turn Venezuela into Cuba.
It's more than the affectations. For quite some time, Mr. Chavez has been turning out for official events in camouflage fatigues and a red beret. More importantly, he is trying to turn Venezuela into a totalitarian Stalinist state by taking apart the social structure. First, he organized a constitutional convention, and then reorganized the legislature. Next, he exercised his new legislative muscle by having passed some 40 new laws, one of which allows seizures of land that is "improperly utilized" i.e., owned by his enemies. Another of his Top 40 new laws mandates 51 percent Venezuelan ownership of all oil drilling operations. This is driving out foreign investors who, for good reason, distrust Venezuelan partners, all of whom are controlled by Mr. Chavez. The grand sum of this scheme economically disenfranchises Venezuelan society, in Mr. Chavez's hope of creating a social climate favorable to his "revolucion."
Most importantly, Mr. Chavez has adopted Cuban tutors, and lets them control his inner circle. About 1,500 Cuban agents are in Venezuela, running their own intelligence operations and protecting Mr. Chavez from his domestic enemies. His entire inner circle is Cuban. Mr. Chavez has tried to take over the labor movement, and has threatened to jail the Venezuelan archbishop. He has cut deals to sell oil to cash-strapped Cuba at huge discounts, and has visited Mr. Castro for some private tutoring in Stalinism. Earlier this month, he announced new restrictions on the press, and has said forcefully that he will not allow anything to stand in the way of his revolution. This is beginning to sound all too familiar.
Mr. Chavez is even following Mr. Castro's policy of palling around with some of the world's most notable bad guys. Before September 11, he was the first head of state to visit Saddam Hussein. He has open relations with FARC the bloody-handed terrorist group that controls a piece of Columbia equal in size to Switzerland. When Mr. Chavez goes to Libya and says its kind of democracy is what Venezuela needs, his political opponents say he's crazy. They're wrong. He may be guilty of self-love, but the man is more dangerous than crazy. Since 1989, Mr. Castro has not been able to fund his foreign adventures. Mr. Chavez doesn't need outside money. If he can turn Venezuela's oil income to fund his "revolution," the threat he will pose to freedom in Latin America will be considerable.
So what to do about Mr. Chavez? President Bush and his Cabinet are focusing on the war on terrorism, and many of the lesser ranks in the administration have not been filled. One of those posts is assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, which would be the one to deal with Mr. Chavez and his Stalinist ambitions. Mr. Bush has nominated Otto Reich for this post, and thereby hangs a sorry political tale.
Mr. Reich's nomination is under the control of Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and his staffer, Janice O'Connell. Mr. Dodd's role in the Reagan days was the resident cheerleader for the communist Sandinista government of Nicaragua. At the same time, Mr. Reich was the Nicaraguan Contras' voice in Washington. Mr. Dodd has never forgiven Mr. Reich for his part in exposing the Sandinistas for what they were. Mr. Dodd and Ms. O'Connell have repeatedly floated the false charge that Mr. Reich is soft on terrorism, and have denied him a hearing to refute the charge. Mr. Bush may make a recess appointment of Mr. Reich. As well he should.
Mr. Reich is no Bill Lan Lee. He is well-qualified, by credentials and temperament. And he is not disqualified by political dogma or the false charge levied by Mr. Dodd and Ms. O'Connell. Mr. Dodd and company say that Mr. Reich helped a man named Bosch escape Venezuelan custody and flee to the United States. Bosch had been charged with blowing up a Cuban airliner. He was tried and acquitted of the charge in Venezuela. After that, he applied for a U.S. visa at our embassy in Venezuela. At the time, Mr. Reich was ambassador to Venezuela.
Contrary to Mr. Dodd's and Ms. O'Connell's charge, and according to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's recent public letter, Mr. Reich not only didn't aid Bosch, but he formally opposed giving Bosch the visa. According to a senior administration source, Bosch did reach Miami, where he still sits, awaiting action on his application for political asylum. That source also said that Bosch got there because, despite Mr. Reich's warnings not to do it, Venezuelan government officials smuggled Bosch onto a Miami-bound flight under a false identity.
Mr. Dodd has made it clear that Mr. Reich's nomination will never get around his blockade. Mr. Bush should make the appointment of Mr. Reich his first order of business as soon as the Congress adjourns. We shouldn't let Latin America burn while Chris Dodd fiddles.

Jed Babbin is the former deputy undersecretary of defense in a prior Bush administration.

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