Exclusive Interview (CNSNews.com) - Top U.S. officials who avoid confrontation with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez should exchange their passivity for a more forceful Latin American policy, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) said in an exclusive interview with the Cybercast News Service.
Otherwise, rogue nations and terrorists will continue to use Venezuela as a conduit for dangerous enterprises that jeopardize U.S. interests, the Florida Republican argued. As it stands, Iran's influence in the region is already growing at a quick pace thanks in large measure to the Chavez government, said Mack. (See Video)
"It's clear Iran is looking to Venezuela to gain a foothold in our hemisphere," he said. "We need to boost our intelligence capabilities and we need to form new alliances not only in Latin American but throughout the world." (See Video)
In October, Mack worked with colleague Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) to help pass House Resolution 435. It calls on the U.S. government to combat the influence and clout that Iran and Hezbollah now exercise in Latin America.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited Venezuela three times since taking office in mid-2005. Meanwhile, Chavez has visited Iran three times since 1999.
Most recently, the Iranian leader traveled to Latin America in September immediately following his highly publicized appearances at the United Nations and at Colombia University in New York City. (See Related Story).
The "strategic partnership" between Caracas and Tehran already involves a strong military component, which will continue to gain momentum in the absence of U.S. leadership, said Mack. In the last few years, Chavez has defended Iran's nuclear energy program, which the U.S. and Europe see as a prelude to nuclear weapons.
Mack declined to comment on specific details as they relate to the military arrangement between Iran and Venezuela. However, he indicated that U.S. officials need to entertain "more severe polices" towards Venezuela in the near-future, if they do not otherwise re-kindle key alliances in the region.
"A lot of countries in Latin America are intimidated by Hugo Chavez, and they may be telling us through back channels that they are with us," said Mack.
"But they do not want to outwardly do this because they see what Chavez has done in other countries where he comes in with a bag full of money to give to his candidate of choice. ... We are not participating well enough, and we are not doing as much as we should to support the people of Latin America," he added. (See Video)
Corruption and poverty in Latin America have provided Chavez with political openings to sell his socialist vision to the populace, said Mack. Moreover, the U.S. has paid insufficient attention to the region in recent years, he said.
"I still believe the people of Venezuela and the people of Latin America are looking for hope and opportunity," Mack said. "They are not asking for a strong, iron-fist type of government." (See Video)
Although Chavez has not delivered on any of his promises with regard to health care, education, and job growth, he is at projecting a vision for upward mobility in a challenging economic climate, Mack explained.
"The time is ripe for the United States to grow alliances and to put the squeeze on Chavez," he said. "But if we wait too long we will begin to lose countries that are now receptive to us."
The socialist vision
Although sympathetic toward Chavez's vision of a "socialism of the 21st century," Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), said the Venezuelan leader could lose political traction at home if he does not closely attach himself to key policies.
"There is a feeling on the part of Venezuelans that they would like to see him more personally involved in implementing the revolutionary reforms he's announced," Birns told Cybercast News Service. "Some programs are working quite well, like the subsidized food market and the land reform program. But others are more haphazard, such as the educational programs."
The high profile Chavez has assumed in neighboring countries and on the world stage is driven by his sincere devotion to economic socialism, said Birns. Even so, he said, the political capital Chavez has accumulated could be harmed if he overextends himself.
"He should be judged separately, both for the quality of his ideas and the quality of the implementation of those ideas," said Birns.
Free trade as an antidote
To compete with the socialist vision Chavez has for Latin America, Mack recommends the U.S. lock in free trade agreements that could be used to help re-boot economic conditions and to cultivate alliances in Latin America.
"We can help to strengthen some of these other countries, and we can show the people of Venezuela that there is a difference between what Hugo Chavez is trying to force down their throats and the kind of [economic] opportunity we can help make available," he said.
"We can stop Chavez from exporting his socialist-dictatorship-style government - but we cannot wait," Mack added.
A good first step would be U.S. approval of a free trade arrangement with Colombia, Mack said.
Unfortunately, the legislation authorizing the deal has encountered congressional opposition that is misguided, he said. Relations could sour with an important strategic player in the region if Congress does not press forward, in Mack's estimation.
These sentiments are shared by Jeb Bush, the former Republican governor of Florida and brother of President George W. Bush.
Jeb Bush criticized members of Congress standing in the way of the free trade deal during a. Oct. 26 debate at Regent University in Virginia Beach.
"Colombia is a hard-earned democracy. People have lost their lives defending democracy [in Colombia], and they are a strong ally of the United States," he said. "They are asking for support from the U.S. in the form of a free trade deal."
Bush also described Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian president, as a "fantastic, charismatic leader," who has brought "security and deeper democracy" to his country.
While it is critically important for the U.S. to bolster its partnership with key leaders such as Uribe, it must also assume a lead role in protesting the political practices now at work in Venezuela, Mack said.
Supporters of Chavez note that he was legitimately elected as a democratic leader. But Mack contends the Venezuelan president moved aggressively to "knock out the pillars of democracy" after his initial election.
"The last time Chavez was elected, it was through intimidation and manipulation," he said. "I don't think you can make the same argument now that he has been legitimately elected."
Mack also expressed concern over the drug trafficking and human trafficking operations that are now moving through Venezuela at a stepped up pace. Under Chavez, there has been an 80 percent increase in cocaine shipments that move through the country, he said.
The U.S. State Department's June 2007 report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) identifies Venezuela as source, transit point and destination country for the trafficking of women and children. (See Video)
To reverse the disturbing trend in Latin America, U.S. officials must abandon the current policy that deliberately avoids rhetorical challenges to Chavez, Mack told Cybercast News Service. (See Video)
"The current policy of non-engagement has not worked," he said.
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