In military terms, the Western Hemisphere is the strategic rear area of the United States. The U.S. needs a secure and prosperous hemisphere not only to ensure a peaceful neighborhood in which to live, but also to be able to project its power to the farthest reaches of the globe and win the War on Terror.
What is happening in our neighborhood? Press reports indicate that a leftist-populist alliance is engulfing most of South America. Some Andean and Central American countries are sliding back from economic reforms and narcotics eradication, and the Caribbean remains irrationally hostile to the U.S. This is the reality U.S. policymakers must confront; and our most pressing specific challenge is neutralizing or defeating the Cuba-Venezuela axis. With the combination of Castro’s evil genius, experience in political warfare, and economic desperation, and Chavez’s unlimited money and recklessness, the peace of this region is in peril.
A quarter-century ago, a democratic revolution began to stir in Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, that revolution is in danger of being reversed. When Ronald Reagan came to power in 1981, more than three-quarters of the region’s citizens lived under undemocratic regimes, mostly right-wing military juntas, but also a few left-wing dictatorships. By 1981, the Soviet Union and its cat’s paw, Fidel Castro, had succeeded in backing Marxist takeovers in two nations close to U.S. shores: Grenada and Nicaragua. Financed by the Soviets and by local kidnappings, drug trafficking, bank robberies, and other criminal activities, Castro had spread his ideology of violence throughout the Caribbean and Central America. By January 10, 1981, ten days before Reagan’s first inauguration, the Castro-supplied Marxist FMLN guerrilla group in El Salvador felt so confident of victory over a moderate civilian-military junta that it launched what it called a ‘Final Offensive’ to give Reagan an ‘inaugural gift’ of a Communist El Salvador.
In South America, a ‘dirty war’ of left-wing violence in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay had led to an equal and opposite reaction by right-wing military regimes. At the hands of both sides, untold thousands were murdered, tortured, or ‘disappeared,’ under horrible conditions whose consequences are with us to this day (some members of those leftist movements are among the leaders democratically elected recently in South America). The Reagan administration withstood severe attacks from the usual wrong-headed suspects in Congress, the media, academia, and the churches, but managed to roll back the Communist aggression — even this language now seems outdated, but it is accurate.
THE LEFT’S RESURGENCE By 1990, the tide had turned: There was not one right-wing military government still in office (something for which Reagan is not given credit in the so-called prestige press); over 90 percent of the region’s population was living under elected governments; and most of the remaining leftist regimes or terrorist movements, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Noriega in Panama, and the FMLN in El Salvador, had few months of political life left. The worst dictatorship remaining was Castro’s: His regime was crumbling faster than usual with the end of $5 billion annual Soviet subsidies. Free-market policies and individual initiative fueled a promising return to prosperity in the Americas.
Today that progress — the legacy of freedom and democracy Reagan fought for — is being threatened, and so is U.S. national security. Not only is Castro still in power, but he is being kept afloat financially by Venezuela’s oil-fueled charity; the Sandinistas are making a comeback in Nicaragua; and violent radical groups menace democracy from Bolivia to Haiti. In recent years, left-of-center leaders have come to power in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay.
Should we worry about these leftists? In general, yes. We know that socialist prescriptions do not provide a solution for the problems of developing nations — and as the chief importer of goods and of people in this hemisphere, the U.S. will pay the price of their success or failure. We would much rather pay the price in imported goods and services from successful societies than bear the cost of surplus populations, crime, and drugs exported by failed states. Another reason we should worry about some of these newly elected leaders is that often, former revolutionaries have acquired authoritarian habits that are hard to break. We, along with our allies, must keep a close watch on whether these presidents respect the human rights of their citizens. If a government is going to attempt to destabilize a neighbor, or establish an authoritarian regime, it must begin by violating the civil and political rights of its own people — by, for example, intimidating the press and muzzling free speech, controlling the labor unions, manipulating the currency, undermining private enterprise, and all the while creating public distractions by blaming foreign devils for the ills of the nation. And when governments take this path — as did the Argentine generals in the 1980s with the Falkland Islands, and Castro and Chavez more recently — they pose a threat to the survival of their neighbors.
Of course, we cannot put all the leftists in one basket. We must differentiate between individuals, and listen to what they say. Throughout history, Western democracies, including the U.S., have erred in ignoring the rhetoric of future despots. In the 1930s, few Europeans or Americans believed Hitler’s Mein Kampf to be a viable blueprint for the takeover of Germany and for a war of aggression and extermination by a racist political regime (some exceptions to this rule, like Churchill, were labeled warmongers and ridiculed by the intelligentsia). American ‘opinion leaders’ have always downplayed the threat posed by Castro, even after Castro begged Nikita Khrushchev to launch a Soviet nuclear attack against the U.S. at the height of the 1962 missile crisis. Many of these same congressmen, academics, journalists, and diplomats now minimize or ignore another would-be dictator in Venezuela. The U.S. cannot afford to follow them in this mistake, because Chavez has what Castro has always wanted — lots of money — and could use it to do great harm.
CONFRONTING CHAVEZ The first task of the U.S., and whatever coalition of the willing it can muster in the region, is to confront the dangerous alliance posed by Cuba and Venezuela. Chavez’s misappropriation of Venezuela’s extraordinary oil wealth, and his willingness to subordinate the nation’s sovereignty to Castro’s ambitions, is emboldening anti-American movements that only a few years ago were weak, broke, and demoralized. Since 2000, Chavez has injected billions of dollars into the Cuban economy (multiply 80,000 barrels of oil, times today’s price, times 365 days a year), thus allowing Castro to extend the life of his bankrupt dictatorship. In exchange, Castro has provided an estimated 20,000 or more ‘teachers’ (read: indoctrinators), intelligence agents, and military advisers to turn Venezuela into another Cuba. Chavez has also provided safe haven to Colombia’s Communist terrorist groups such as the FARC, thus undermining one of the most democratic and successful leaders in the region, President Alvaro Uribe. Recently a FARC leader, Rodrigo Granda, identified as that terrorist group’s ‘foreign minister,’ was captured inside Venezuela by bounty hunters and delivered to the Colombian government. Granda, who was enjoying the Venezuelan government’s ‘hospitality,’ had received Venezuelan documentation and had even voted in the August 2004 referendum that ratified Chavez’s control. The democratic opposition in Venezuela and many foreign observers are convinced that the referendum was fraudulent: How many thousands of Colombians, Cubans, and other foreigners were given the same illegal opportunity to vote for Hugo Chavez?
Castro isn’t the only beneficiary of Chavez’s largesse. Untold millions of Venezuela’s oil dollars are also being diverted to such radical leaders as Evo Morales in Bolivia, who advocates expansion of coca cultivation and upholds Castro’s regime as the model for the Andean nations. Calling the U.S. ‘the world’s most evil regime,’ Chavez has threatened to cut off exports of oil to the U.S. (Venezuela is our third largest source of foreign oil) and sell it to China. In March, during the visit of the president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, to Caracas, Chavez publicly defended Iran’s right to develop nuclear power and said that if the U.S. used military power to stop Iran, Venezuela would cut off oil deliveries to the U.S.
MARCHING BOOTS Chavez is also engaging in a major force buildup. According to reports, he intends to acquire from Russia 50 sophisticated Mig-29s, 40 attack and transport helicopters, and 100,000 advanced AK-47s (an unusually high number for an armed force of not more than 35,000 men); from Spain, four naval frigates and an unspecified number of battle tanks; and from Brazil, two dozen Tucano aircraft with air-to-ground attack capability. These and other Venezuelan military acquisitions (the amount of weapons transferred from Cuba or China is not known) threaten the peace of the entire region.
The most vulnerable current targets of the Castro-Chavez axis are Nicaragua and Bolivia. A Sandinista takeover in Nicaragua, this time not by force but by Trotskyite subversion of civil institutions, is being resisted by the same democratic forces that defeated the Communists over a decade ago. In Bolivia, a struggle has been underway for years between democratic forces and radical indigenous groups promoting an increase in coca cultivation and nationalization of energy resources. But this time the radical, or ‘anti-systemic’ leftist forces have an advantage: They are receiving funding and political/military assistance from the outside. Colombian FARC ‘advisers’ have been apprehended in Bolivia, and a couple of years ago the Venezuelan military attache was caught passing large quantities of money to Evo Morales’s party, according to the former Bolivian defense minister.
In Nicaragua, the Marxist Sandinistas are making a political comeback through an alliance with the party of disgraced former president Arnoldo Aleman, currently serving a sentence for corruption. The Sandinista-Aleman alliance is a threat to U.S. national security: It has prevented the elected government of President Bolanos from destroying Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles (SAM-7s) that can shoot down commercial or civilian aircraft. Bolanos had agreed last year with then-secretary of state Powell to destroy the missiles.
Though it represents the majority of the population in both countries, as demonstrated by polls and elections, the pro-democracy, anti-radical civil society is under violent threat — violence is the favorite tool of the radicals — and thus needs the moral, political, and material support of the free nations of the world. As usual, the leadership for that support, especially in this part of the globe, must come from one country: the United States. Moreover, the U.S. can and must work with democratic leftists, the operative term being ‘democratic.’ In fact, if they are like Chile’s president, Ricardo Lagos, they are no more a danger to democracy and freedom than is Tony Blair’s left-of-center Labour party — which, we should recall, has been our closest ally in Europe. Lagos is the latest leftist Chilean leader to preside over the continuation of an economic boom based on free-market policies and individual initiative, the very antithesis of socialism.
And if the new leaders are like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, we can be equally calm since, to date, Lula, as he is known, has governed without violating any political or economic rights of Brazilians. He has carried out centrist, orthodox economic policies that have resulted in substantial economic progress. On the other hand, Brazil’s foreign policy does have the leftist tilt and gratuitous anti-Americanism that is reflective of a socialist European mindset — in spite of the fact that President Bush has extended a hand of friendship and cooperation almost unprecedented to someone who came to office with such strong left-wing credentials as Lula. Bush ignored the many years of friendship between Lula and Communists such as Castro and instead wisely focused on the fact that the former labor unionist had always played the democratic game by the rules. Even when persecuted by military regimes, Lula never advocated violence. He ran for president of Brazil unsuccessfully three times before he won on the fourth try. Bush and Lula have had several pleasant and productive bilateral meetings; even before he was inaugurated, Lula was invited to a meeting in the Oval Office, something unusual for a president-elect. Lula’s clearly stated top priority is to find a way to feed the large proportion of Brazil’s population that is malnourished; it is probable that he knows that left-wing policies will not lift Brazilians from poverty and put food on their tables, and that’s why he has chosen a rational, centrist economic plan rather than Castroite policies.
The real danger to regional peace and stability today does not emanate as much from those relatively new democratically elected presidents as it does from two demagogues who have been around a while longer: Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. The emerging axis of subversion forming between Cuba and Venezuela must be confronted before it can undermine democracy in Colombia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, or another vulnerable neighbor. Many countries in the region are intimidated by the ability of the Castro-Chavez axis to mobilize anti-government violence, as in Bolivia; or by Chavez’s brazen use of oil as blackmail, as in the oil-starved and defenseless Caribbean island-nations; or by the leftist movements from which many of the current leaders came. Some are simply afraid to appear to support a policy favored by the ‘imperialist’ U.S. — but they will have to overcome these fears lest their countries pay a severe price.
– Otto Reich served President Bush from 2001 to 2004, first as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and later in the National Security Council. He now heads his own international government-relations firm in Washington.