The Obama administration started out on the wrong foot in world affairs. It used techniques better suited for domestic political campaigns — popularity contests — in its foreign policy. In our own hemisphere, the result was confusion for our allies and our enemies alike.
The overriding objective of U.S. policy — in Latin America and elsewhere — should be to advance U.S. national interests, not to curry favor with foreign leaders. If we can be liked while advancing our interests, so much the better. But when we try to befriend undemocratic leaders and ignore their belligerence in the process, we neither become better liked nor advance our interests. Some of the despots in Latin America to whom the Obama administration extended an open hand, only to encounter a clenched fist, include the rulers of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, and Honduras’s former president José Manuel Zelaya.
Foremost among our national interests is security, but, caught up in trying to be liked, the administration is underestimating the threats we face. The main threat to the peace, freedom, prosperity, and security of the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere comes not from military coups, but from a form of creeping totalitarianism that calls itself 21st Century Socialism; it is allied with some of the most virulent forms of tyranny and anti-Western ideology in the world.
Following Fidel Castro’s direction, this new gang of autocrats gains power through elections, and then dismantles democracy from within. That has already happened in Venezuela and Bolivia, is happening in Nicaragua and Ecuador, almost happened in Honduras, and could happen in any other nation that falls into the grasp of something called ALBA, the Spanish acronym for the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.
ALBA’s hostile-takeover pattern is clear: After gaining power democratically, they use force to intimidate political adversaries and the media; politicize the police and the military and place them at the orders of the ruling party; pack the judiciary with compliant or corrupt judges; rewrite electoral laws to eliminate opposition candidates and parties; seize private property or force businesses to close using bogus charges; incite mob violence to force potential opponents into silence or exile; and attack the churches, civic associations, press, labor unions, and any other civil institutions that dare to challenge the government. Their stated model is Cuba; they seek to replicate the Orwellian dictatorship that rules that island, a pauperized prison-nation whose citizens risk everything to flee.
ALBA was conceived in Havana decades ago but is financed today by Venezuela’s petrodollars. It is actually the revival of Fidel Castro’s goal of uniting international radical and terrorist movements of the developing world under his leadership, a movement that in the 1960s he organized as “The Tricontinental.”
The first foreign country Fidel Castro visited after the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship, in 1959, was Venezuela. While there, he secretly asked Venezuelan president Romulo Betancourt for $300 million (over $3 billion in today’s dollars) to “undermine the Yankees” in Latin America. Betancourt, a center-left leader but a committed democrat, flatly turned Castro down. Three years later, Castro was supporting guerrilla warfare in Venezuela and sending an armed expedition of Cuban soldiers to join Marxist rebels in an attempt to destroy Venezuelan democracy and acquire its oil wealth. Today, thanks to Hugo Chávez, Castro has achieved that goal.
Castro targeted Bolivia in the 1960s because of its strategic location and enormous mineral wealth. Bolivia has land borders with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, and Chile — more than two-thirds of South America. In 1967, Castro’s bloodthirsty lieutenant Ernesto (Che) Guevara selected Bolivia as the site on which to begin his Communist takeover of the continent. Guevara failed miserably, but today, another Castro follower, Bolivian president Evo Morales, is executing Guevara’s plan.
U.S. policy cannot be focused solely on the ALBA alliance, but neither can it ignore ALBA, because the Havana–Caracas–La Paz Axis is undermining the peace and prosperity of the rest of the hemisphere.
For example, Venezuela has played a destabilizing role in Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, and above all Colombia, where Hugo Chávez maintains explicit strategic and political alliances with the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). (The term “narco-terrorist” is not mine; it is applied to the FARC by various agencies of the U.S. and European governments.) Just last month, the Spanish government accused Chávez of supporting the Spanish Basque terrorist group ETA as well as FARC.
Not satisfied with merely supporting FARC and allowing guerilla leaders and fighters to hide, train, and recuperate inside Venezuelan territory, Chávez has repeatedly closed its commercial border with, and threatened war against, Colombia. The impact on the Colombian economy has been devastating.
The U.S., Colombia, and other governments in the region have abundant evidence of massive flows of FARC-controlled cocaine through Venezuela. Senior Chávez-regime officials have been designated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as drug kingpins and active collaborators in FARC drug trafficking. These kingpins include the current head of Venezuela’s military intelligence services, Gen. Hugo Carvajal, former interior and justice minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, and former political-police (Disip) chief Henry Rangel Silva. Weapons are smuggled to the FARC through Venezuela with the active collusion of senior Chávez regime officials including Army Gen. Clíver Alcalá Cordones.
Last year, Peruvian intelligence services found evidence that Hugo Chávez actively supported the indigenous groups responsible for violent protests in that country. Former Bolivian presidents Jorge Quiroga and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada have charged that the Chávez regime clandestinely financed and supported riots in that country as far back as 2002, which toppled two governments in quick succession and led to the election of the leader of the rioters, Evo Morales. Chávez also actively supports radical groups in Ecuador, which under Pres. Rafael Correa hosted a command, control, operations, and training base for the Colombian FARC until it was destroyed in a cross-border raid by Colombian forces.
In Central America, Chávez actively supports the Sandinista regime of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega. Next door, Chávez financed and encouraged Manuel Zelaya’s efforts to violate the constitution and laws of Honduras. The disruption to the economy of Central America of the six-month-long Honduran political crisis is said to have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to those impoverished economies. Chávez used Venezuela’s oil resources to strengthen El Salvador’s Marxist FMLN party, and poured millions of dollars into both El Salvador’s and Panama’s presidential elections. (One of his favored candidates succeeded, the other failed.) Mexico’s intelligence services have found links between the Chávez regime and radical groups in that country.
Venezuela’s oil wealth has been used to influence Caribbean states through the PetroCaribe program, through which these countries can acquire oil on credit. A few forward-thinking Caribbean leaders, in Trinidad-Tobago and Barbados for example, have warned that PetroCaribe is saddling the Caribbean’s poor island nations with a debt burden they will never be able to repay. But cheap oil today is politically appealing.
PetroCaribe has allowed Chávez to manipulate the Organization of American States, as evidenced before and during the Honduras crisis. The OAS supported the ALBA position of returning the law-breaking Manuel Zelaya to power in contravention of a unanimous vote of the Honduran Supreme Court. (To be fair, the Obama administration also supported Zelaya until persuaded to reverse itself by a bipartisan group of senators and representatives. According to one Democratic member, the policy was “the most wrong-headed” he had ever seen from the State Department.)
Recently, Chávez named Honduras’s ousted would-be dictator Manuel Zelaya as the head of PetroCaribe’s “Political Council” — a body that does not yet exist. Chávez obviously created this position as an excuse to give Zelaya a salary with which to travel the Americas doing Chávez’s bidding.
There is another country, Argentina, that, although not a member of ALBA, bears watching. Agentina suffers from a lack of transparency, massive official corruption, harassment of private enterprise, manipulation of the free market and the institutions of democracy, and authoritarian tendencies. Its ruling presidential couple, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, have close ties to Cuba and Venezuela.
It has been well documented that Pres. Cristina Kirchner received millions of dollars from Hugo Chávez for her election campaign, money taken illegally from the Venezuelan state, introduced illegally into Argentina, and given to the Kirchner campaign in violation of Argentine law. The transfer of that money in 2007 was exposed in detail in a federal trial that took place in Miami, Fla. It is well known — but not yet documented or publicized — that similar transfers have taken place in at least a half-dozen countries in this region.
Like Castro’s before him, Chávez’s ambitions are global, and the principal goal of his international activities is to undermine or cripple U.S. strategic interests in the world, not just in the Americas. Chávez is very open about his determination to bring down what he calls the U.S. Empire.
To this end, Chávez has forged strong bonds with undemocratic states such as Russia, Belarus, and Iran. Chávez has signed numerous economic and military agreements with all three countries. For example, up to this year, he had purchased over $4 billion in Russian military equipment, including state-of-the art SU-30 fighter-bombers (similar to our new F-22 Raptor), hundreds of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles, and a factory in which to build untold numbers more of that iconic Russian weapon. He invited the Russian navy to maneuver in the Caribbean for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s hard-line prime minister, Vladimir Putin, visited Venezuela in April and signed an additional $5 billion arms deal with Chávez, plus oil agreements said by experts to be very favorable to Russia.
Chávez has visited Tehran numerous times, signed many commercial, financial, and other agreements with Iran, hosted Iranian leader Ahmadinejad in Caracas, and facilitated Ahmadinejad’s travel to ALBA members Bolivia and Nicaragua. He has supported Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capable of striking targets in Europe and throughout the Middle East. He is a vociferous enemy of Israel and a supporter of regimes dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the U.S. and the sponsorship of terrorism, such as Iran and Syria.
During Chávez’s eleven years in power, Hamas and Hezbollah have established a presence in Venezuela. Israeli military intelligence recently disclosed that a shipment of arms seized last November by Israeli commandos departed from a Venezuelan port and docked in an Iranian port before sailing through the Suez Canal bound for Lebanon. The weapons, including missiles, reportedly were to be delivered to Hezbollah.
Chávez has turned Venezuela over to the Castro regime. Today, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 Cubans in Venezuela on official missions, by the Chávez regime’s own admission. Since 2005, Venezuela’s armed forces have been obliged to embrace Cuba’s national-security doctrine, which considers the U.S. the greatest external threat to the survival of the 21st Century Socialist revolutionary regime in Caracas.
In spite of all this, there are policymakers in Washington, D.C., who maintain that the Castro-Chávez-Morales alliance is no more than a nuisance. But Chávez, because of his bottomless oil-money barrel, is the principal source of subversion in Latin America today. It is time to confront him. It is time to care less about what others think of us and focus more on what they do to us.
– Between 1981 and 2004, Otto J. Reich served Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush in the National Security Council, as assistant secretary of state, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, and special envoy for Western Hemisphere affairs. This article is adapted from Congressional testimony he delivered on March 10 before the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.