Back to the Bad Old Days?

David Smilde

For those of us who have been a bit impatient with the Obama Administration’s Latin American policy over the past three and a half years, Wednesday’s exchange on Venezuela by the U.S. presidential candidates should provide ocassion for reflection. 

In a Spanish-language channel interview on July 11, President Obama stated, “We’re always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe. But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us.” He also commented on  the importance of Venezuela’s October 2012 presidential elections taking place in a free, informed, and transparent manner. This is the type of pragmatic, reality-based foreign policy that both protects US interests and respects the sovereignty of other nations, and should be applauded.

But Mitt Romney responded with the politics of fear. “Hugo Chávez has provided safe haven to drug kingpins, encouraged regional terrorist organizations that threaten our allies like Colombia, has strengthened military ties with Iran and helped it evade sanctions, and has allowed a Hezbollah presence within his country’s borders.”

Never mind that U.S. ally Colombia doesn’t seem to share this super-sized threat perception and has shown how much can be achieved with Venezuela through pragmatically facing common challenges. Never mind that serious analysis shows that stories of Hezbollah networks in Venezuela amount to smoke and mirrors.

Venezuela does indeed have several government and military officials who have been named “kingpins” by the US Secretary of the Treasury; however that is different from the idea of providing a “safe haven” which makes it sound like Venezuela is providing refuge for foreign drug traffickers. Venezuela has extradited dozens of drug traffickers since 2010, including ten to the US. Venezuela has certainly become a significant transshipment country for cocaine trafficking. But at the same time, close U.S. allies Colombia and Peru are by far the world’s leading cocaine producers. And the United States itself is still the world’s largest market for cocaine. Thus singling out Chávez seems a little misplaced. 

Venezuela has indeed increased its relations with Iran. But these relations are mainly economic and political, not military; they bear watching, not hyperbole.  

Romney’s remarks were obviously aimed at energizing an important electoral constituency in South Florida. But the comments should cause concern over what a Romney Latin America policy might look like: the rhetorical construction of “rogue states” that need to be confronted “before it’s too late;” and the use of such “gathering storms” to mobilize support in electoral contests. The counter-productive nature of Cold War politics in the 21st Century should be clear by now—saber rattling by the U.S. would be manna from heaven for nationalist, leftist Latin American governments, would increase their belligerence, and only stoke conflict with the United States. But perhaps that is the point.