- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

It is high time the U.S. government stopped ignoring multiple threats to U.S. interests and security in our own part of the world. The Middle East and the Caucasus are important, but at least equally important is the region we ourselves inhabit.

George W. Bush came to office in January of 2001 proclaiming that Latin America would be at the top of his list of foreign policy priorities.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and almost total concentration of the attention of the government on the Middle East and the struggle against terrorism. Latin America was not just placed on the back burner but was off the stove entirely, except for occasional events such as the near-fatal illness of Fidel Castro.

Unfortunately, Latin America did not forget us. While our attention was elsewhere, a wave of radical anti-democratic, anti-market and anti-U.S. regimes emerged in the Hemisphere, led by Venezuela‘s Hugo Chavez, fat with oil money. He succeeded in creating allies in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Argentina and only missed Peru and Mexico by a hair.

Mr. Chavez’s progressive destruction of democracy in Venezuela is well-known:All of the major institutions of national government are now in the hands of administration supporters as well as the great majority of state governorships and municipal governments. The principal opposition television network, RCTV, was seized without compensation and remaining opposition media are constantly harassed.

The most recent outrage, however, is the disqualification of 272 mostly opposition candidates for governorships, mayoralties and legislatures in the November state and local elections, including the popular candidate for mayor of Caracas, Leopoldo Lopez. This is directly out of the Iranian playbook and the measure is blatantly unconstitutional, but nevertheless was validated by the Chavez-dominated Supreme Court.

Mr. Chavez has been gradually nationalizing the Venezuelan economy, including taking over power companies, banks, the telephone company, a steel company and others. He recently issued 26 presidential decrees, increasing his personal power in both the political and economy spheres to that of an open dictatorship. Most of these measures are precisely those the Venezuelan people rejected in the referendum of Dec. 2, 2007.

Additionally, Venezuela has been engaged in massive attempts to affect political outcomes in other Latin American countries, has supported guerrilla and insurgent movements, such as the FARC in Colombia, and has purchased huge quantities of military equipment, including submarines and advanced fighter planes, far beyond any possible military threat to the country.

Most significantly for the national security of the United States and the security of the hemisphere, however, has been the Venezuelan regime’s constantly growing ties with Cuba, Russia, China, Belarus and especially Iran. Iranian-supported terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are permitted to organize and raise funds through an extensive network in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. There are now regular flights between Caracas and Tehran (in which normal citizens cannot book passage) and Iran has opened a 100 percent-owned bank in Caracas, called the Banco Internacional de Desarrollo, in an obvious and apparently successful attempt to bypass the financial sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S., Europe and the U.N. The Venezuelan financial system is also extensively used for the facilitation of official corruption and the laundering of drug-trafficking funds.

As a final note, the current Venezuelan regime is notoriously anti-Semitic, as documented by the American Jewish Committee and others. Jewish institutions are frequently harassed and government publications print scurrilous cartoons, reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

U.S. policy towards this clear and immediate security threat in our own hemisphere has been essentially passive, as exemplified by the more than tepid response to the decrees mentioned above and the invalidation of candidates for the fall elections. Recently Mr. Chavez offered Russia space to establish military bases while purchasing more military equipment from that country. To this there was no reaction at all.

It is not necessary to declare Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism in order to take the measures necessary to protect U.S. and hemispheric interests and security. Most of the cocaine going to Europe now passes through Venezuela and West Africa, a traffic protected by the Venezuelan government. That and the obvious assistance to terrorist regimes and organizations provide more than sufficient cover for the measures that should be taken. In particular, those Venezuelan financial institutions providing channels for Iran to evade financial sanctions imposed by the international community should be sanctioned themselves.

Norman A. Bailey is an adjunct professor of economic statecraft for the Institute of World Politics.

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