- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

Our beloved mainstream media is complaining that President Bush is spending too much time at the “Western White House” in Crawford, Texas. Their stories about his “vacation” make it seem as if he’s not doing a whole lot. But a closer look reveals that the president is working hard — the Fourth Estate just doesn’t bother to cover what he’s really doing.

For example, last week the president’s meeting with Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe attracted little notice from the masters of the media. Colombia, locked in a drug-funded civil war, now stretching into its 41st year — has lost nearly a quarter of a million people to the conflict since 1964. The pro-American Mr. Uribe — a strong ally of this president — is committed to ending the scourge of illegal narcotics, which is fueling terrorism in the region — and beyond. But he needs help.

“The great enemy of Colombian democracy is terrorism,” Mr. Uribe said in Crawford. He praised the Bush administration and the American people for their assistance which he described as “exemplary.” While observing that Colombia has “made progress, and we are winning,” he also cautioned that “we have not won yet.”

One of the reasons Colombia has not won yet is because the narco-terrorists who are doling out the mayhem and murder in Colombia are finding refuge in Venezuela, with which Colombia shares a 1,300-mile border. The near-dictatorial regime of Hugo Chavez in Caracas has granted the guerrillas a safe haven to launch attacks against Colombia. This, coupled with last month’s launch of the new Chavez propaganda channel called Telesur, has caused growing concern in Bogota and other democratic capitals in the region. Telesur, it should be noted, is a “joint project” of the socialist governments of Venezuela, Cuba, Uruguay and Argentina.

When Mr. Chavez is not competing with Al Gore in launching new television networks, he is busy increasing his military troop strength and making unprecedented purchases of arms. On his shopping list: MI-24 attack helicopters; 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia; coastal gun boats; and a fleet of troop transport aircraft. The purchases have caused great concern in both Bogota and Washington and may have emboldened Mr. Chavez to step up his rhetorical assault on the U.S.

This week at the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth, dubbed “Against Imperialism and War,” the Venezuelan strong-man called the United States the “most savage, cruel and murderous empire that has existed in the history of the world.” Later in his lengthy diatribe Mr. Chavez expressed his support for Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying he expects to continue strengthening relations and that Venezuela, like Iran, is a country that has been “attacked” for many years by “the hand of imperialism.”

After telling the 15,000 young people assembled at Venezuela’s Central Military Headquarters that “socialism is the only path,” Mr. Chavez told the students their collective goal should be to “save a world threatened by the voracity of U.S. imperialism.” According to the new Telesur Network, the students “celebrated by waving flags, dancing in traditional dress and wearing berets commemorating Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.”

Though the whole scene was reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s finest moments, not everyone is laughing at Mr. Chavez’s flair for the dramatic. U.S. defense experts note that the Venezuelan military hardware spending spree is largely funded with petro-dollars — and that at $60-plus per barrel — there is no shortage of cash in Caracas. At the U.S. Southern Command Headquarters there seems to be little amusement in the Chavez regime’s new-found affection for communist China and Iran. And in Managua, supporters of Nicaraguan democracy and free enterprise are deeply concerned for the support — political and financial — that the Venezuelan tyrant is providing to Daniel Ortega.

The Chavez “Bolivarian Revolution” has become a confusing stew pot of rhetoric and repression. He has alienated his main trading partners; transformed a once professional diplomatic service into a socialist cheering squad; and has purged political dissidents, while providing material support for terrorists. His threats to slow or cease oil exports to the United States may seem hollow to some, but others remind us that Venezuela produces more than 16 percent of the crude oil we consume. A quick trip to the gas pump — and the prospect of a cold winter — should suffice to focus the attention.

Come November, the press may look back at the Bush-Uribe meeting in Crawford and the cemented U.S.-Colombian partnership as their lost opportunity to document an important milestone in U.S.-South American relations. By then, the Western Hemisphere’s leaders will be gathered for the Summit of the Americas in Buenos Aires. The Argentine summit will be a great opportunity for the Bush administration to enlist serious help from our South American neighbors in the war on terror and the administration’s passage last month of the Central American Free Trade Act (CAFTA).

How important is this platform for Western Hemisphere cooperation? Important enough that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has shaken up her starting roster for Latin American foreign policy. Ever since September 11, 2001, U.S. diplomatic efforts south of the Rio Grande have been eclipsed by events in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Petty tyrants like Mr. Chavez have capitalized on our inattention, fomenting discontent, abusing human rights and creating uncertainty about American resolve. Hopefully, that will change with the arrival of Tom Shannon, a close colleague of Secretary Rice from her days on the National Security Council Staff at the White House. It’s high time that our own hemisphere was back on the radar screen.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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