Empowering Chavez

Like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Hugo Chavez relies on blunders by the United States to legitimize and empower himself.
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The nineteenth century British statesmen Lord Palmerston believed that the national interest should drive all government policy. Twenty-first century America has no sense of a national interest and therefore has no energy policy, no industrial policy, no immigration policy, and no foreign policy. Maladroit Bush Administration global meddling has empowered the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, created a terrorist threat in Iraq where none existed before, and alienated nearly all of America's traditional allies. Latin America has been somewhat off the screen but even the somnolent might have noticed that leftist-inclined leaders who are highly critical of the United States have emerged in six countries. Much of this derives from the impression that the U.S. only desires partners in the hemisphere who are willing to accept Washington's dominance, a proposition that no one outside of Colombia is buying into.

The most irritating South American leader continues to be the thuglike Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, but Chavez, who lost a referendum to perpetuate his power last December, has many political opponents within his own country and has even been losing support among poor voters, his most reliable allies. Like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, he relies on blunders by the United States to legitimize and empower himself. Both rely on threats from outside to rally their own people behind them and, unfortunately, the U.S. always appears to be ready to oblige. The latest insanity to come out of the U.S. Congress is a motion by Florida Republican congressmen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack to declare Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism. Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are closely linked to the Cuban exile community in Florida. Ros-Lehtinen is herself Cuban. Cuban exiles particularly hate Venezuela because it supports the communist regime in Cuba, which makes punishing Venezuela a priority for congress. In the punishment game it is the American public who will lose if Chavez retaliates, which he will, and blocks all oil sales to the U.S., driving the price of gasoline up by at least 10 per cent. The Venezuelan people are rallying behind Chavez because the terrorist label is an affront to national dignity that also because it bears serious legal and economic consequences. The Venezuelan state oil company Citgo will be hurt initially because its headquarters and major refineries are in Texas, but it will eventually find new markets for its oil, probably in China. That is not really a good outcome. Oil is a fungible commodity and there will always be some available for those willing to pay the price, until it runs out, but hundreds of millions of barrels of oil that normally flow to the United States will most likely be locked up in a contract committing them to Beijing.

The State Department is reported to be dragging its feet on the terrorism supporter designation because of the potential damage to the U.S. economy and also because there is no real case against Chavez. The Venezuelan president is an unpleasant demagogue who has played fast and loose with the Colombian terrorist group FARC but there is no actual evidence that he has given them any money or other tangible support. The case against him, according to Ros-Lehtinen and Mack, is based on a laptop that was captured from the FARC so-called Foreign Minister Raul Reyes after he was killed in Ecuador on March 1st. One entry on the laptop reads (in translation) is "... With relation to the 300, which from now on we will call 'dossier,' efforts are now going forward at the instructions of the boss to the cojo [slang term for 'cripple'], which I will explain in a separate note. Let's call the boss Ángel, and the cripple Ernesto." Obviously, the statement can mean any number of things, but Mack and Ros-Lehtinen have chosen to interpret is an offer of $300 million from Chavez to the terrorist group. Go figure.

This is the kind of situation that is best left alone so the people in the country most impacted will sort it out. Which, in this case, means leave the fate of El Presidente to the Venezuelans as they are most affected by his misrule and will eventually get rid of him. Chavez's dabbling with terrorism had already made him somewhat unpopular in Venezuela because South Americans are completely aware of what a problem terrorism is, having experienced it first had for much of the latter half of the twentieth century. Chavez's fortunes were sinking, but as soon as the gringos began to make threats his popularity rating markedly improved.

Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are willing to sacrifice the U.S. national interest, which is to try to stay on good terms with all our Western Hemisphere neighbors and keep the oil flowing. They are intent on appeasing their own narrow base of political supporters, many of whom are so fixated on Cuba that they forget where they currently reside. Where have we heard this sort of thing before? The Armenian and Israeli lobbies come immediately to mind, venting their grievances in our country, where bloc voting coupled with big money contributions for politicians goes a long way. Hyphenated Americans who have dual citizenship or are otherwise passionately attached to another country should opt to live in that other country or leave their transnational baggage back in their former home where it belongs. Our politicians should be intelligent and patriotic enough to ignore those who want the United States to fight their wars for them. Unfortunately intelligence and patriotism in politicians are not in great supply these days.

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