While the Bush Administration is busy rounding up Republican Guards in the sands of Iraq, an axis of mischief is taking shape in America's back yard. Cuba is jailing dissidents and oil-rich Venezuela is telling South American neighbors that they will be the next target of American aggression.
It's part of an effort to use the United States as a foil to breathe new life into a moribund Latin American radical movement in the wake of failed revolutions in the 1980s. Key to its success is a convergence of forces between Middle Eastern rogue states, Latin American radicals, and various terrorist groups such as Colombia's rebels.
Both Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuela's autocratic president Hugo Chávez stand in solidarity with each other, and have courted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, as well the leaders of other rogue states such as Libya, Iran, and North Korea.
Cuba has faithfully denounced U.S. and U.N. attempts to disarm Iraq and exchanged biotechnology with both Iranian and Iraqi governments. Alcibíades Hidalgo, a former Cuban vice minister of foreign relations, wrote in the Washington Post that Castro used the Soviet electronic eavesdropping base at Lourdes, Cuba to spy on U.S. command centers during the first Gulf War--passing intelligence directly on to Saddam. Most likely similar efforts are under way now.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was the first democratically-elected leader to visit Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War. He also reportedly corresponded with Muammar Qaddafi about strengthening ties between Middle Eastern and Latin American radicals and using oil as an economic weapon. This January, his Education Ministry announced scholarships for Venezuelan youths to study at Saddam University.
Ironically, cash-strapped Cuba never turned its Middle Eastern connection into much of an advantage. But last week when the United States acted to disarm Iraq, Castro used the distraction of distant war to crackdown on an opposition movement that has been growing ever since May 2002 when dissident Oswaldo Payá and his Varela Project collected more than 11,000 signatures for a petition to hold a referendum on Cuba's one-party rule. Beginning March 19, the Castro government arrested more than two dozen independent journalists and 50 dissidents.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's Chávez has been building an international network to support his "Bolivarian" agenda of exporting populist, authoritarian government to neighboring countries and defeat what he calls "savage capitalism." Supporters include Cuban agents who allegedly hold advisory positions in top Venezuelan intelligence and police agencies, and Colombian narcoguerrillas who reportedly trained rural paramilitaries known as Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL) to act as a shadow army for Chávez in the countryside.
From the Middle East, Iranian and Iraqi engineers flew in recently to help Chávez restore Venezuelan petroleum production following a two-month strike by oil workers. At the same time, Chávez named himself head of the National Oil Council, a body he created to ensure direct presidential control of the state oil company and its revenues.
Outside the country, Chávez supporters seek to create unrest. Speaking in Santiago, Chile on March 24, vice-president José Vicente Rangel warned that, "What [America] did to Iraq can happen to any other nation." A month ago, Hasil Rahaham, a Venezuelan Muslim with suspected ties to al Qaeda, arrived from Caracas and was detained at London's Gatwick airport after a grenade was discovered in his luggage.
Chávez loyalists are also forming foreign solidarity groups patterned after the president's militant neighborhood political action organizations known as "Bolivarian Circles"-similar to Cuba's Revolutionary Defense Committees. A web page hosted in Sweden, "Red de Solidaridad con la Revolución Bolivariana," lists contacts in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Spain, Uruguay, and even the United States.
While all this might seem like small potatoes compared to the challenge the United States now faces in the Middle East, such cancers have a way of metastasizing. Especially when polls suggest that Latin American publics distrust their own leaders to behave democratically and believe that Americans are uninterested in helping them solve their problems.
Siding with Saddam Hussein and other despots, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez are shepherding forces to confront the United States in its own backyard. The Bush Administration and Congress should not take this lightly. At the very least, these men could inspire or assist reprisals against America for disarming a friend and fellow dictator. Beyond that, they will struggle to subvert U.S. allies in the region.
Despite heavy commitments elsewhere, Washington should not hesitate to increase intelligence collection (especially toward Cuba and Venezuela), step up public diplomacy in the region, and work harder to encourage friendly democrats and ongoing reforms to keep this situation from undermining the security of the United States and of neighboring democracies and free markets in the western hemisphere.
Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.