ASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) - While President George Bush played nice with Mexican
President Vicente Fox at the North American Summit in Texas, U.S. media attention
was focused more on Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to sound the alarm
against Latin American 'troublemakers' in his recent swing through the region.
Topping his list was populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, followed by a
nemesis from bygone days, former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who was accused
by an unnamed 'senior official' in Secy. Rumsfeld's delegation of hoarding several
hundred Russian-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that Washington wants to see
Indeed, at the start of Secy. Rumsfeld's trip, Washington announced the suspension
of all U.S. military assistance to Nicaragua -- about $2.3 million -- pending
the destruction of the missiles that Washington contend might be obtained by terrorists.
At the same time, the right-wing National Review published a cover story by Pres.
Bush's top Latin America aide during his first term, Otto Reich, a Cuban-American,
on "Latin America's Terrible Two," referring to Pres. Chavez and Cuban
President Fidel Castro. The magazine's cover, with a photo of the two men in close
conversation, featured a banner reading "The Axis of Evil ...Western Hemisphere
"With the combination of Castro's evil genius, experience in political warfare,
and economic desperation, and Chavez' unlimited money and recklessness, the peace
of this region is in peril," wrote Mr. Reich. "The emerging axis of
subversion forming between Cuba and Venezuela must be confronted before it can
undermine democracy in Colombia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, or another vulnerable neighbor,"
he wrote, echoing a series of opinion pieces that have appeared mostly in the
editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal in recent weeks.
Secy. Rumsfeld's efforts appeared to be part of an orchestrated campaign that
began in January when, during her confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice referred to Pres. Chavez as a 'negative force' in the region.
Recently, the Miami Herald reported that Pres. Bush himself was taking a personal
interest in Pres. Chavez' actions and rhetoric and that various policy options
to toughen Washington's stance toward Caracas, including efforts to discredit
the Venezuelan leader for alleged corruption, and to persuade his neighbors, notably
Brazil, to distance themselves from him, were now being actively pursued.
"We need to have a strategy to contain Chavez," said Rogelio Pardo-Maurer,
the Pentagon's top Latin America official, at a recent defense conference in Miami.
A hard-liner whose thinking is close to that of Mr. Reich, he later told the Financial
Times of London that Pres. Chavez "is picking on the countries whose social
fabric is the weakest. In some cases, it's downright subversion."
The fact that Secy. Rumsfeld chose Brasilia, Brazil, as the place from which to
issue his strongest attack yet -- assailing Venezuela's decision to buy 100,000
AK-47s from Russia -- suggested that such a strategy is already in play.
If the shipment goes through, he added, "it wouldn't be good for the hemisphere."
The Chavez government has insisted that the guns will be used to replace the 35,000-man
army's aging stocks of FAL rifles.
Nevertheless, Washington sees the AK-47 order as part of a much larger arms build-up,
financed by high global oil prices, that may include the purchase of fighter jets
from Brazil, gunboats from Spain, and as many as 50 assault attack helicopters
and 30 MIG-29 fighter jets from Russia.
Washington is also increasingly worried about the larger geo-strategic implications
of Pres. Chavez' petro-policies. The United States currently imports about 1.5
million barrels of oil a day from Venezuela -- or about 60 percent of Venezuela's
total oil exports. But Pres. Chavez, who has warned that he will cut off the oil
supplies if Washington tries to overthrow him, has been trying to diversify his
In recent months, he has signed contracts with France, India and China. To help
with his diversification efforts, he further alienated Washington by commissioning
Iranian technical assistance. Earlier in March, he hosted Iranian President Mohammed
Khatami, to whom he expounded on Teheran's right "to develop atomic energy
and to continue its research in that area" and voiced his "profound
rejection of the imperialist desires of the U.S. government."
At the same time, he has provided oil at cut-rate prices to Cuba, in exchange
for the services of thousands of doctors and teachers working without charge in
rural areas and urban slums.
What makes all of this appear threatening to the Bush administration is the leftward,
anti-neo-liberal trend throughout Latin America, as Mr. Reich himself conceded
despite its reflection on his own stewardship of U.S. policy there.
Citing 'press reports' that a "leftist-populist alliance is engulfing most
of South America," Mr. Reich, who also suggests that Ortega's Sandinistas
may soon be voted back into power in poverty- stricken Nicaragua, says, "This
is the reality U.S. policymakers must confront; and our pressing specific challenge
is neutralizing the Cuba-Venezuela axis."
To some critics, this campaign could well prove counter-productive.
"It's as if these people have a compulsive need to see Latin American reality
only through a Manichean lens, whereby they have to identify an evil force to
mobilize against and the complexities of the region get simplified into these
dualisms of good and evil," said Geoffrey Thale of the Washington Office
on Latin America, a human rights group.
"We've been dealing with Castro as evil incarnate, and we've made ourselves
a laughing-stock throughout the region and done nothing to effectively encourage
democratization and human rights in Cuba," he added. "If we approach
Chavez the same way, we're likely to have the same results."
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