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Still Lost in Latin America

Jaime Daremblum

Hillary Clinton has been touring Latin America this week. First she traveled to Peru, where she attended the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), before visiting Ecuador, Colombia, and Barbados. To her credit, the secretary of state is trying to build support for readmitting Honduras to the OAS, and she is also seeking to fortify the U.S.-Colombia partnership. While her outreach to Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa (whom she met with in Quito on Tuesday) will almost surely be futile, Clinton deserves praise for her attention to hemispheric relations.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration still lacks a coherent strategy for the region. Each of the four U.S. presidents who immediately preceded Obama launched at least one major initiative in the Western Hemisphere. Under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, trade liberalization became the lodestar of U.S. policy, resulting in NAFTA, an expansion of the Caribbean Basin Initiative trade programs, CAFTA, and several bilateral free-trade pacts, including agreements with Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Panama. Not only has the Obama team refused to push for significant new trade expansion, it cannot even persuade congressional Democrats to approve the Colombia and Panama deals, which were signed three years ago.

“Unless we provide opportunity for an education and for jobs and a career for the young people in the region, then too many will end up being attracted to the drug trade,” Obama proclaimed in his opening remarks to the 2009 Summit of the Americas. Yet, thus far, he has failed to champion a new multilateral education partnership. Some Latin American countries, such as Costa Rica, have a long history of prioritizing education; others, such as Mexico and Brazil, have established successful programs to keep poor children in school. A robust new education partnership could go a long way toward combating the social inequalities that narco-traffickers and populist autocrats prey upon.

Rather than articulate a comprehensive Latin America policy, the Obama administration has reacted to events in an ad-hoc manner, which has created a perilous leadership vacuum. To the extent that it has a guiding philosophy, that philosophy appears to be a short-sighted form of realpolitik.

I am especially concerned about its approach to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, the authoritarian leftist who has turned his country into, among other things, a dictatorship, a narcotics hub, a terror sponsor, and a close ally of the Iranian theocracy. High-ranking American officials seem to believe that, however authoritarian and brutal his governing style, Chávez offers “stability” in the U.S.-Venezuela oil relationship. Consequently, Washington should not be overly concerned about his obliteration of democracy, his egregious human-rights violations, or his aggressive foreign-policy behavior.

It is highly disturbing that such a school of thought exists in the upper echelons of American diplomacy. Every day that Chávez erodes democracy, jails opposition members, persecutes journalists, attacks private enterprise, supports drug traffickers, aids Iran, buys sophisticated weapons from Russia, and builds a paramilitary army, Venezuela becomes less stable, and bilateral energy relations become more tenuous.

Even if we ignore human rights and focus solely on petroleum, the “Bolivarian revolution” has been a disaster. Venezuelan oil production has dropped substantially under Chávez, who has nationalized the industry and repeatedly threatened foreign companies. Market analyst Francisco Alzuru has predicted that Colombia could become a bigger oil producer than Venezuela “within ten years.” That is partly due to strong industry growth in Colombia, but it also reflects the severe damage that Chávez has done to Venezuelan production.

His treatment of foreign oil firms is of a piece with his broader approach to private-sector businesses. Just last weekend, Chávez declared that the government was seizing two more private manufacturing companies. He also called for an investigation into how “transnational companies” such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola are using Venezuelan water supplies. “That water in the first place belongs to the people,” Chávez bellowed. “Water is social property.” According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, nationalization is the main reason why foreign direct investment in Venezuela plummeted from $349 million in 2008 to negative $3.1 billion in 2009.

Venezuela is now mired in a painful economic crisis. Voters are supposed to have an opportunity to vent their frustration in legislative elections this coming Septemberexcept that many Venezuelans believe those elections will either be canceled or indefinitely postponed. In order to subjugate his opponents, Chávez has been mimicking his allies in Tehran and building his own version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Venezuelan minister Diosdado Cabello recently announced that the number of pro-Chávez militia fighters has swelled to 120,000.

Even if that figure is wildly exaggeratedwhich it almost certainly isthe rapid expansion of the militias is deeply concerning. It makes a mockery of the idea that Chávez is somehow a force for “stability.” Indeed, his policies have made it increasingly likely that Venezuela will eventually be plunged into bloody conflict. The longer his autocratic rule continues, the greater the likelihood of serious violence.

Thus, for both humanitarian and practical reasons, the Obama administration should be standing up for Venezuelan democracy. But instead, Obama officials seem to be embracing value-free realpolitik, just as they have done in their dealings with China, Iran, and other dictatorial regimes. Such timid diplomacy, though often described as “realism,” is not realistic at all, if the goal is to foster stability. True stability will only be possible when Venezuela returns to the path of democracyand that will only happen if the U.S. and its Latin American partners confront Chávez over his dangerous and destructive behavior.

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