Washington Focuses on Southern 'Axis of Evil'
U.S. President George W. Bush played nice to a deeply frustrated
Mexican President Vicente Fox at the North American Summit in Texas
Wednesday, US media attention was focused more on Pentagon chief
Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to sound the alarm against Latin American
troublemakers in his swing through the region this week.
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 Rumsfeld's delegation of hoarding several hundred Russian-made
surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that Washington wants to see destroyed.
at the start of Rumsfeld's trip, Washington announced the suspension
of all US military assistance to Nicaragua about 2.3 million
dollars' worth pending the destruction of the missiles that
Washington contend might be obtained by terrorists.
the same time, the right-wing National Review published a
cover story by Bush's top Latin America aide during his first term,
Otto Reich, on "Latin America's Terrible Two," referring
to 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 Version."
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
Reich, who remains influential with his former colleagues, including
his more diplomatic successor, Assistant Secretary of State for
Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega.
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.
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 Chavez as a "negative force"
in the region.
week, the Miami Herald reported that Bush himself was taking a personal
interest in 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.
need to have a strategy to contain Chavez," said Rogelio Pardo-Maurer,
the Pentagon's top Latin America official, at a recent defense conference
a hard-liner whose thinking is close to that of Reich and Noriega,
later told the Financial Times that Chavez "is picking
on the countries whose social fabric is the weakest. In some cases,
it's downright subversion."
fact that Rumsfeld chose Brasilia as the place from which to issue
his strongest attack on Chavez yet assailing Venezuela's
decision to buy 100,000 AK-47s from Russia suggested that
such a strategy is already in play.
can't imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s, I can't imagine
what is going to happen to 100,000 AK-47s," Rumsfeld said just
before his meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva, who has served as a mediator between Washington and Caracas
in the past.
the shipment goes through, Rumsfeld added, "it wouldn't be
good for the hemisphere."
the AK-47s, which some US officials have suggested may be intended
for left-wing guerrillas next door in Colombia or even for followers
of indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia, are not the administration's
only complaint against Chavez, whose government has insisted that
the guns will be used to replace the 35,000-man army's aging stocks
of FAL rifles.
sees the AK-47 order as part of a much larger arms buildup, 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.
and other Venezuelan military acquisitions (the amount of weapons
transferred from Cuba or China is not known) threaten the peace
of the entire region," warned Reich who noted that, in addition
to Colombia, Nicaragua and Bolivia were most vulnerable to subversion.
is also increasingly worried about the larger geo-strategic implications
of Chavez' petro-policies.
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 Chavez, who has warned that he will cut off the
oil supplies if Washington tries to overthrow him, has been trying
to diversify his customers.
recent months, he has signed contracts with France, India and China,
whose Vice President Zeng Qinghong he hosted in January, one month
after Chavez met with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, in Beijing.
help with his diversification effort, Chavez further alienated Washington
by commissioning Iranian technical assistance. Earlier this month,
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 US government."
the same time, he has provided oil at cut-rate prices to Cuba in
exchange for the services of thousands of doctors and teachers (Reich
refers to them as "indoctrinators") working in rural areas
and urban slums.
makes all of this even more threatening to the Bush administration
are the leftward political trends throughout Latin America, as Reich
himself conceded despite their reflection on his own stewardship
of US policy.
"press reports" that a "leftist-populist alliance
is engulfing most of South America," Reich, who also suggests
that Ortega's Sandinistas may soon be voted back into power in Nicaragua,
notes that "this is the reality US policymakers must confront;
and our pressing specific challenge is neutralizing the Cuba-Venezuela
key to doing so, he argues, is by distinguishing between "democratic
leftists," who in his view include Chilean President Ricardo
Lagos and Brazil's Lula, and the radical populists who are presumably
subject to the subversive influences of Chavez and Castro.
real danger to regional peace and stability today does not emanate
as much from those relatively new democratically elected presidents
as it does from two demagogues who have been around a while longer:
Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez," according to Reich.
some critics, the campaign against Chavez and other radicals could
well prove counterproductive.
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
been dealing with Castro as evil incarnate, and we've made ourselves
a laughingstock 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
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2005 Inter Press Service