The agenda at the Cancun summit between President Bush, President Fox, and Canada’s new premier Stephen Harper is already filled with discussions of trade and immigration. Nevertheless, there is an important security issue that should be added–building a coherent, unified policy for countering the increasing radicalism in Latin America and for isolating Venezuela’s trouble-making President Hugo Chavez. For Bush this is a necessity; for Harper it is an opportunity.
Chavez is no mere gadfly–he is becoming a major strategic problem for the hemisphere. Having established an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Chavez has become the most vocal supporter of Iran’s nuclear program. During a March 2005 visit to Caracas by Iran’s then President Khatami, the two countries signed 20 agreements to cooperate on economic development projects. Iran’s election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has explicitly called for Israel’s destruction, has done nothing to dampen Iranian-Venezuelan relations.
Within Venezuela, Chavez has eroded civil liberties. Since he took power in 1998, Venezuela’s ranking in the Freedom House Freedom in the World report has dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free.” The report states that in 2004, “Chavez devoted considerable attention during the year to advancing his influence over the judicial system, media, and other institutions of civil society.” Chavez’s government has enacted media laws that could allow the government to imprison reporters for insulting public authorities and institutions and has packed the Supreme Court by expanding its membership from 20 to 32 justices.
However, Chavez’s growing influence throughout Latin America is the most serious concern. Flush with petro-dollars, Chavez has been purchasing influence, spreading his radical populism, and spearheading a regional left-turn away from free markets and free civil society. He has funded like-minded candidates in elections in Bolivia and Uruguay and is now reportedly funding radical candidates in Mexico and Peru. In Argentina, Chavez took on billions of dollars in Argentine state debt, easing Argentina’s fiscal crisis and helping his ally President Kirchner. Free or subsidized oil has been used to win friends in the Caribbean, Central America, and even in the United States. The most important recipient of Chavez’s largesse is Castro. Subsidized oil from Venezuela props up the Cuban regime, and Castro in turn sends operatives to Venezuela to support Chavez’s endeavors. Chavez is acquiring other means of spreading his influence. He funds Telesur–Latin America’s al Jazeera–to broadcast his vision, and he provides safe havens for Latin America’s largest terrorist organization, FARC.
Over the last few decades, Latin America has made important strides towards building free societies, but much remains to be done. Unchecked, Chavez is undoing this progress. Many within Latin America have become concerned with his growing influence. His rhetoric and interference in other nations’ internal affairs have sparked several high-profile spats with other Latin American countries, including Columbia, Mexico, and Peru. Even Brazil’s president, who had been a radical labor leader, has been careful to distance himself from Chavez.
Despite these concerns, U.S. efforts to isolate Chavez have been hampered, largely due to the historically complex and often overbearing U.S. approach to the region. Latin American leaders and populations understandably bristle when the U.S. comments on their internal political situations. A year ago, when the United States proposed that the Organization of American States take an active role in fostering democracy, the other member states rejected it.
Canada is not burdened with this legacy; Canadian efforts to push democracy in the region will not be viewed with the same skepticism as those of the U.S., and they may even fall on receptive ears. Also, U.S. requirements for immunity from possible International Criminal Court prosecution have hampered military-to-military relations between the U.S. and many Latin American countries. This lack of engagement is bad both for the U.S. image in the region and for hemispheric security. Canada does not operate under these restrictions, and the Canadian military (which is generally regarded as highly professional) could fill the gap. Besides being the right thing to do, taking the lead on isolating Chavez would also provide Harper with important leverage in Canada’s contentious trade talks with the Unites States. U.S. concessions on the soft lumber tariffs, in turn, would put Harper in a better position to tack closer to the U.S. on other important security issues.
Canada is ready for a greater role on the world stage. When he visited Afghanistan, Harper praised the Canadian troops serving there for, “demonstrating an international leadership role for our country. Not carping from the sidelines, but taking a stand on the big issues that matter. You can’t lead from the bleachers. I want Canada to be a leader… A country that really leads, not a country that just follows.” The Western hemisphere needs Canadian leadership. The issue at stake is freedom and progress for a continent, which is bigger than any tariff dispute.
–Aaron Mannes, author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations, and he researches terrorism at the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Maryland.