October 20, 2008

October 20, 2008 | Commentary on Latin America

What about Latin America?

Halfway through the season's presidential and vice presidential debates, it seems likely there's going to be little discussion of U.S.-Latin American relations during this election.

No doubt finding answers to the current economic turmoil deserves priority, but surely there should be time to discuss links to one of our biggest export markets. Candidates might also show interest in the persistence of the drug threat, or the dangerous growth of radical populism and anti-Americanism in our backyard. Given this, the American electorate would be well served with policy proposals concerning U.S.-Latin American relations before it votes next month.

One vexing issue that ought to interest voters is how to handle Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, deteriorating U.S.-Venezuelan relations, and growing Venezuelan ties with Russia and Iran. Russian warships are on their way to the Caribbean for joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy and Chavez has solicited Russian help with nuclear power.

After a flurry of profanity on the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Chavez expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy with the absurd charge that he was plotting a coup. Enriched by Venezuela's oil revenues, agents of Chavez's government have conspired with narco-terrorist guerrillas in Colombia, shipped suitcases of cash to Argentina and worked to firm up relations with Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

Oil and other subsidies from Chavez give Raul Castro in Cuba a major means to preserve his brother's communist dictatorship well beyond what ought to have been its expiration date.

While most are aware that U.S. relations with Venezuela have been chilly for some time, the situation in the Andes and Central America is growing more dangerous as Chavez spreads his brand of radical populism across the region.

Borrowing from Chavez's playbook, Evo Morales swept into power in Bolivia in 2006, promising mass-government handouts while deriding the free market and "Yankee imperialism."

Morales has tightened his grip on the state, nationalizing the gas industry, cutting away at private property rights, defending the right of farmers to grow coca (the base ingredient of cocaine), and pushing his country to the brink of civil war.

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has utilized his brand of radical populism to win control over the nation's central bank and key economic resources and to guarantee his own longevity in office. In Nicaragua, Sandinista President Daniel Ortega pines for the bad old days of the 1980s. Even traditional Central American friend Honduras is tempted by offers of cheap oil and other financial aid from Venezuela.

And yet, the stalled Colombia free-trade agreement in Congress seems to indicate that our own elected officials have little interest in shoring up our ties with one of our strongest allies in South America.

In the past, U.S. presidents articulated broad visions and bold measures to advance U.S. interests and leadership in the Americas. Whether it was Theodore Roosevelt's "Path Between the Seas" or FDR's "Good Neighbor Policy" or JFK's "Alliance for Progress," American presidents have displayed vision.

One hopes that the candidates will be able to look past the current crisis on Wall Street and beyond sniping over their fitness for high office to articulate a clearer vision of the way forward in the Americas. The instinct for American leadership should prevail in reasserting the importance of democracy, human rights, economic freedom and individual liberty in the Western Hemisphere -- and across the globe.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation. Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at Heritage.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry

Ray Walser, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the San Diego's La Prensa