Tuesday, March 6, 2007

When President Bush leaves tomorrow on a five-nation tour of Latin America, he will be entering a region that has become more important to our national security than at any point since the Cold War.

Not too long ago, Latin America was a vital front in the fight against communism, and if recent events are any guide, it could become equally important in the war on terror.

A fresh wave of authoritarianism — fueled by petrodollars, populism and anti-Americanism — has cast a dark cloud over the future of freedom in our hemisphere. In order to deal with this emerging threat, we need to dust off the Cold War playbook and become increasingly active in helping our friends to the south.

The problem starts (but doesn’t end) in Venezuela, a nation that once enjoyed a 50-year democratic tradition, but is now in the early stages of a dictatorship. Venezuela’s messianic president, Hugo Chavez, has basically become a power unto himself. Last month, elected representatives abdicated their responsibility and gave the Venezuelan leader the sweeping power to rule by decree for 18 months so he can impose sweeping economic, social and political change.

These dictatorial powers would be alarming in anyone’s hands, but they’re particularly dangerous in the hands of Mr. Chavez. The strongman rules an oil-rich nation that exports 1.1 million barrels of oil to the United States per day, which amounts to 14 percent of our total oil imports. Mr. Chavez has already colluded with other OPEC nations to raise oil prices, and if he’s successful in nationalizing multibillion-dollar crude projects in the Orinoco Belt, there’s a risk that prices could jump again.

This could have a severe impact on the pocketbooks of American families and small businesses. According to some economists, every time oil prices rise by 10 percent, on average 150,000 Americans lose their jobs. Mr. Chavez has used his nation’s windfall oil profits to buy political support at home and stir trouble abroad. He has said that Venezuela has a “strong oil card to play on the geopolitical stage” and “it is a card that we are going to play with toughness against the toughest country in the world, the United States.”

In his struggle against U.S. “imperialism,” Mr. Chavez has found a useful ally in the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism — the government of Iran. He is one of the few leaders to publicly support Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the Iranian mullahs have rewarded Mr. Chavez’s friendship with lucrative contracts, including the transfer of Iranian professionals and technologies to Venezuela. Last month, Mr. Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad revealed plans for a $2 billion joint fund, part of which will be used as a “mechanism for liberation” against American allies. This could help achieve Mr. Chavez’s vision, shared in an earlier meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad, when he said, “Let’s save the human race; let’s finish off the U.S. empire.”

Mr. Chavez has grown bolder by interfering in the elections of several Latin American countries, and his brand of revolutionary politics has made gains in some of them. Bolivia’s newly elected president, Evo Morales, has nationalized the energy industry, rewritten the constitution and promised to work with Mr. Chavez and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to form an “Axis of Good” to oppose the United States.

Perhaps most ominously, the former Soviet client Daniel Ortega has returned to the presidency of Nicaragua. During the 1980s, Mr. Ortega ruled his country with an iron fist until U.S.-backed freedom fighters ousted him from power. Nicaragua’s democracy prospered for the next 16 years, but now he is back. In response to the Ortega victory, Mr. Chavez chanted “long live the Sandinista revolution!” Then, in his first week as president, Mr. Ortega met with Iran’s Mr. Ahmadinejad, and told the press that Nicaragua and Iran “share common interests and [have common] enemies.”

Left unchecked, Messrs. Ahmadinejad and Chavez could be the Khrushchev-Castro tandem of the early 21st century, funneling arms, money and propaganda to Latin America, and endangering that region’s fragile democracies and volatile economies. If these two pariahs succeed, the next terrorist training camp could shift from the Middle East to America’s doorstep.

We need to face reality and confront this threat head-on. At the pinnacle of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan seized the initiative and repulsed Soviet efforts to set up camp in our hemisphere. The Gipper’s leadership should serve as a model in thwarting the advance of tyranny and terrorism in our times.

We should build new bridges to our friends in the region — pressing forward on free trade, development aid, military cooperation and exchange programs. Let’s take the necessary steps today, so tomorrow we won’t have to ask: “Who lost Latin America?”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas is chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee.

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