Politics & Policy

Obama’s Unfinished Business

The steps the administration should take with Hugo Chávez.

At the Trinidad meeting of the 34 presidents in the Americas last week, President Obama walked out of his way to shake Hugo Chávez’s hand — in an embrace graced by marvelous smiles from both of them. Observers worldwide saw the embrace as having great significance: On April 18, the New York Times put a photo of the glad-handing in a huge four-column space at the top of page one.

The next day, Chávez walked to Obama’s chair and gave him a decades-old paperback book of rants against capitalism (the worst evil of our time) and then had a conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — announcing to apparent State Department approval that he was sending his ambassador back to Washington. (Ambassadors of both countries were withdrawn in September 2008, when Chávez, with no evidence, charged that the U.S. was backing his assassination.)

Criticized by Republicans in Washington for being “irresponsible” in his embrace of Chávez, President Obama responded that being “courteous” was hardly “endangering the strategic interests of the United States.” He said the issue of meeting with America’s enemies without conditions was asked and answered in the 2008 presidential campaign. (Actually, candidate Clinton responded to Obama in a debate that it would be “irresponsible” to meet enemies like Chávez without pre-conditions, and candidate Obama later wiggled on the matter.)

But with no preconditions and no bilateral meeting, Chávez got legitimacy and respect he does not deserve. What Obama got is a headache trying to explain why he embraced someone with a record like Chávez’s:

‐Chávez has strategic alliances with rogue regimes and terrorist organizations including Iran ($20 billion of business has been estimated by both governments), Hezbollah, Hamas, and FARC (Colombia’s narco-guerillas). These states and groups are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, kidnappings, and crimes against humanity. Several ministers and diplomats of Chávez are designated as Hezbollah agents by Obama’s government, while the U.S. and Israeli governments are investigating a Hezbollah plot to kidnap Jews and sequester them in Lebanon with Hezbollah or in Colombia with the FARC.

‐Chávez supports Iran’s nuclear plans as a sovereign right, is producing uranium, and is suspected by Obama’s government of shipping nuclear materials to Iran in contravention of U.N. sanctions.

‐Chávez has purchased over $5 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005, starting a small arms race in Latin America, while inviting Russian nuclear carriers into Venezuelan waters and providing an island for a Russian nuclear bomber airbase if Prime Minister Putin wants it.

‐Since 2005, when Chávez expelled the DEA from Venezuela for allegedly spying, cocaine trafficking in Venezuela has leaped to 250 tons from 50 tons per year. Meanwhile, Chávez promised FARC — which earns $300 million per year from cocaine sales — money, arms, Venezuelan identity papers, and safe haven in Venezuela. (Just two days before the Chávez embrace, President Obama was in Mexico talking about the “shared responsibility” with President Calderon for combating the drug trade.)

‐Obama’s government has listed Venezuela at or near the bottom worldwide on human-rights violations, political prisoners, slave trafficking in women and children, and the suppression of free speech and assembly.

‐Chávez has not run a transparent election since 2004, when he took total control of the voter rolls, the electronic voting machines, and the centralized count. As Obama and he were hugging, Chávez was replacing the elected mayor of Caracas with a stooge, eliminating the budgets for cities and states whose residents elected opposition candidates in 2008, and arresting Manuel Rosales, who ran against Chávez in 2006, on trumped-up charges from long ago.

‐The recent spate of violence against Jews and synagogues in Venezuela has occurred in parallel with anti-Semitic hostility from the Chávez government over the Israeli attack in Gaza and President Ahmadinejad’s visits to Venezuela — during which the Iranian leader repeated his well-known views about wiping Israel off the map.

President Obama has left the impression that he approves of this record. He can recover by sending Chávez a note about what he’d like to talk about in a bilateral meeting. Obama’s note could read, taking cues from our book The Threat Closer to Home: “Let’s sit down and discuss how we can work together to reduce poverty, corruption, the drug trade, international criminal gangs, the illegal-arms trade, money-laundering, kidnapping, nuclear-weapons-materials proliferation, terrorism, human-rights abuses, anti-Semitism/racism, and the destruction of democratic institutions” — in short, all the matters Obama and Chávez covered with hugs and smiles of the Trinidad meeting.

Michael Rowan and Douglas Schoen are American political consultants who have co-authored The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chávez and the War against America. Rowan lived in Caracas from 1993 to 2006 and Schoen conducted strategic research in Venezuelan elections in 2004 and 2006.

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