- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 27, 2011

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.

A 2010 survey by regional polling firm Latinobarometro suggests that Mr. Chavez is increasingly unpopular in the region, while Mr. Obama ranks as the most popular foreign leader.

Meanwhile, Latinobarometro data show that 90 percent of Colombians view the nation’s relationship with the U.S. favorably - up from 87 percent in 2008.

Some analysts also suggested that the White House may have picked El Salvador as the final stop of Mr. Obama’s Latin American swing to send a message to Mr. Chavez, who backed the 2009 election of the country’s new president, Mauricio Funes.

By engaging with Mr. Funes - whose government marks the first time the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a former guerrilla group, has been in power since El Salvador ended its bloody civil war in 1992 - Mr. Obama is signaling that he can have a good working relationship with a leftist leader in the region.

“Where you’re playing the anti-Chavez card in a way is in El Salvador, where Funes has stayed away from the siren call of” an alliance with Mr. Chavez, said Ray Walser, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Still, Mr. Obama has taken a much more aggressive tack publicly against U.S. adversaries such as Iran and Cuba, shepherding multilateral sanctions against Iran through the U.N. last year and continuing to speak out about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s crackdown on democracy advocates.

Then, in his broad speech on Latin America from Santiago last week, the president called on the Cuban government to take more “meaningful” actions to respect human rights. But notably absent from the speech was any mention of Venezuela or Mr. Chavez.

Central to the Chavez threat are Venezuela’s ties to Cuba and Iran, which the U.S. and other international allies have accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Mr. Chavez and Mr. Ahmadinejad have exchanged several visits - Mr. Chavez made his ninth visit to Tehran in October - and Mr. Chavez is pursuing a nuclear program that, like the Iranian leader, he claims is only for peaceful purposes.

Venezuela is known to have considerable amounts of untapped uranium reserves, and the two countries reportedly signed a secret nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008. That has some analysts questioning whether Iranian factories that have been set up in Venezuela, supposedly to produce bicycles and tractors, could be front operations for uranium mining.

Mr. Obama, asked last week by journalist Andres Oppenheimer about the reports that Venezuela is helping Iran obtain uranium, said he wouldn’t make “categorical statements about these issues” but focused his answer on Iran, never once mentioning Venezuela or Mr. Chavez.

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