Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Intense media coverage of the Middle Eastern terrorist threat against the United States, the government’s attempts to thwart it and two successive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taxed the America attention span. Yet, there is another front in the war on terror that has gone neglected in our own hemisphere, and it threatens to destabilize the entire region.

Latin America is undergoing a series of economic and social crises, from Argentina through Ecuador to Brazil and Venezuela. Graft, corruption, incompetence and failed economic policies have left the entire region in frightening chaos.

Capitalizing on the discontent and frustration of the poor, a new wave of leftist leaders have begun to take control of the “SouthernCone.”Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina have all elected leftist presidents. Fortunately, these leaders have demonstrated rather moderate tendencies and are promising centrist economic and social reform.

But then, there is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez,whose radical policies have whipped up a storm of discontent, racial hatred and class warfare previously unknown in Venezuela’s history. One of the oldest democraciesintheAmericas, Venezuela has also been one of its most wealthy nations, thanks to rich oil deposits. Its generous social system — providing free education, scholarships, medical care and opportunities — has attracted a flood of refugees from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the Caribbean. The wealth generated from the oil economy tended to inflate costs, creating exorbitant prices while wages remained low.

The influx of so many poor with great aspirations of acquiring wealth resulted in the creation of massive slums that consumed the hillsides like a cancer. Mix into these conditions the long reign of two major political parties worm-eaten with corruption and seemingly unsympathetic with the poor, and the almost inevitable resentment created when huge economic discrepancies exist, and the poor face tremendous obstacles preventing them from advancing into the “opportunity-based” middle class. Venezuela was a social powder keg waiting for a spark.

Then along came Mr. Chavez, a former army colonel and leader of an unsuccessful 1992 coup that converted him into an imprisoned criminal and heroic “champion of the poor.” A foolish PresidentRafaelCaldera granted Mr. Chavez a presidential pardon, and Mr. Chavez ran for president on a moderate platform promising sweeping reforms and a healthy house-cleaningofgovernment corruption. This won him wide support from the poor and disarmed the fears of the more wealthy, who hoped Mr. Chavez would deliver on his promises. Mr. Chavez won the presidency with the support of just 35 percent of the electorate.

Soon afterward, the trouble began. Mr. Chavez established friendships with the most radical leaders in the world, beginning with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, but also including Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein (whom he called “My brother”), North Korea’s Kim Yong-Il and the Palestinian Yasser Arafat, among others. Mr. Chavez celebrated the September 11 attacks in the United States, and reportedly gave money to the Taliban and al Qaeda. He has supported terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and established close ties with Colombia’s narco-terrorists (ELA and the FARC), permitting them to operate, train and rest in Venezuelan territory.

Recently, Venezuela’s permissiveness — if not outright support — for terror groups inspired U.S. Army Gen. Richard Boyer to compare Venezuela with Syria. The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said “the government of the United States and the people of Venezuela have a differing view of democracy than does President Chavez.” Taken together, these comments are a clear shot across the bow of Mr. Chavez. Mr. Chavez’s anti-democratic behavior and support of terror groups is earning him an associate membership in the “axis of evil.”

But these events go almost totally unnoticed within the American media. We’ve largely ignored the comments of U.S. Southern Command’s Gen. James T. Hill, who said that there is a proliferation of terror groups in Latin America. Instead, the war-weary American media turns its tunnel vision to the Laci Peterson investigation or the Kobe Bryant scandal.

One of the most important fronts in the war on terror is being left behind, and probably won’t get the coverage it deserves until the powder keg explodes. Who will be to blame when Americans again ask, “Why didn’t we know?”

Curtis Reed is president of Free Venezuela, a Florida-based pro-democracy advocacy group.

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