(CNSNews.com) - Free trade agreements can help forge alliances with Latin American nations eager to push back against the growing influence of Hugo Chavez, the virulently anti-U.S. leader of Venezuela, contend some foreign policy experts.
The alliances Chavez, a Marxist, has forged with rogue regimes could jeopardize U.S. national security in its own hemisphere, unless a concerted effort is made to re-establish economic and political ties with Central and South American countries, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, project coordinator for Latin America at the Cato Institute, told Cybercast News Service.
This sentiment is shared by policy analysts with the American Security Council Foundation (ASCF), a Washington D.C.-based think tank, which recently released a documentary (See Related Story) that explores the connection between Chavez and foreign governments identified by U.S. officials as state sponsors of terrorism.
The Venezuelan leader has been actively courting Iran, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. Russia has also figured into the equation. The Heritage Foundation notes that Caracas recently signed contracts worth $3 billion to acquire some 30 Russian military airplanes, more than 50 helicopters and 100,000 assault rifles.
"Hugo Chavez is a very a real threat to this country, and our way of life," Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) told Cybercast News Service. "When you look at what he's doing, it's all right out of Fidel Castro's playbook. He's trying to mimic the relationship Fidel had with Russia but he's doing this with Iran."
But Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), diverges sharply from this assessment and notes that Chavez was popularly elected. He also said the vision Chavez has for "socialism of the 21st century" holds considerable promise for the poor in his country.
U.S. officials who have questioned the commitment Chavez has to democratic ideals offer up disingenuous and hypocritical arguments that excuse transgressions in other Latin American countries more amiably disposed toward U.S. policy, said Birns.
"When it comes to friends and enemies in Latin America, Washington has a selective indignation," he said. For instance, Chavez has been criticized for meddling with his country's court system, at the same time a "major scandal" involving Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his country's high court has emerged, Birns said. Nevertheless, the U.S. has declined to comment out of deference to Uribe, he added.
Although it is an ally of the U.S., Colombia is now being eyed by Chavez and could conceivably be "his greatest prize," said Hidalgo. Colombia is viewed as a key part of the greater Bolivian Republic that Chavez envisions, he explained.
There is a danger Colombia could begin to lean toward Chavez, if the U.S. Congress fails to approve a free trade agreement while reducing financial aid, Hidalgo said. For this reason, he recommends U.S. officials reverse course and lock-in free trade agreements with Colombia and other Latin American countries receptive to U.S. investment.
Hidalgo also sees an opportunity opening for a "strong alliance" with Brazil that would help to keep Chavez in check. Luiz In?cio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, has been distancing himself from the Venezuelan leader while maintaining a constructive dialogue with Washington, he said.
The Brazilian Senate recently voted against granting Venezuela membership into Mercosur, the South American trading bloc established by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay in 1991.
Chavez's decision to decline the renewal of a broadcasting license for an opposition television station has been cited by some Brazilian officials for keeping him out of the trading bloc.
"This is the definition of chutzpah," Birns said. "The Brazilian Senate is clearly one of the most corrupt political bodies in the world. There's been a scandal practically every day taking place there."
In the end, Birns anticipates a compromise that would allow Venezuela to join the trading bloc. He also sees Latin American countries breaking away from the sphere of U.S. influence in response to the "malign neglect" on the part of Washington policymakers.
The U.S. State Department has deliberately avoided engaging Chavez to the detriment of U.S. interests, Mack told Cybercast News Service. U.S. officials are reticent to openly confront Chavez in the political sphere out of fear they might unwittingly elevate his profile and prestige, Mack said. These concerns are misguided in his view.
"We need to speak to the people of Venezuela and Latin America," he said. "They feel we've forgotten them with our attention focused on other parts of the world. We haven't been a good neighbor. There is a lot of poverty, and this is why the people of Latin America are open to influence from Chavez and Ahmadinejad."
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