Latin America: A vigil of suspense
By Paul M. Weyrich
Americans are so busy keeping up with events in the Middle East that we do not realize how much things have been changing in our own "neighborhood." That would be a grave mistake on our part because – in the long run -- the Caribbean and South and Central America are as important to our national interest and even to our winning the War on Terrorism. A Latin America led by Cuba's Castro and Venezuela's Chavez and Brazil's Lula appears ready to plunge that continent back into the mayhem and socialism that made life there so miserable. Given that the three leaders have ties to terrorists or their national sponsors, terrorist groups well could find willing accomplices – the heads of national governments -- in our own backyard.
Only fifteen years ago it appeared that much of Latin America had turned away from the socialism and authoritarianism that had crippled the economies of many of its countries and the freedoms of their citizens. During the 1980s Nicaragua had been under Marxist control. El Salvador had been fighting a Marxist insurgency bankrolled by Cuba. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in fending off extremism on the left ended up settling for military-led regimes.
Otto Reich, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, recently credited President Reagan for having "rolled back Communist aggression" in our Southern Hemisphere. He wrote in National Review Online , "By 1990, the tide had turned: There was not one right-wing military government still in office (something for which Reagan is not given credit in the so-called prestige press); over 90 percent of the region's population was living under elected governments; and most of the remaining leftist regimes or terrorist movements, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Noriega in Panama and the FMLN in El Salvador had few months of political life left."
Now Reich warns that whatever progress we had made in Latin America and the Caribbean is in severe danger of being undone. Castro is intent on doing whatever he can to undermine freedom in that region and he has a well-heeled accomplice in Venezuela's Chavez. This duo has no qualm in pulling out the rugs from under democratically elected governments. Cuba may be broke due to the shortcomings of its own socialistic system but that is no reason to prevent it from forcing other countries' citizens to share in the same kind of misery.
Venezuela, thanks to its oil revenues, is taking up the slack created by the demise of the Soviet Union in propping up Cuba. Castro has sent Venezuela military advisors and intelligence agents, leading Mortimer Zuckerman in U.S. News & World Report to suggest a few months ago that "Cubans are already running the intelligence services and indoctrinating and training the military." The evidence strongly suggests that Venezuela is providing the guerilla outfit, the FARC, with a staging ground to help undermine the democratically elected government of Colombia. A highly placed FARC member, Rodrigo Granda, was captured recently by Colombian military agents. Granda was carrying a Venezuelan passport. The Washington Times , in a March 17th article on "Venezuela's Dangerous Exports" reported that General Bantz Craddock, the chief of our Southern Command, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "We remain concerned that Colombia's [terrorist organizations] consider the areas of the Venezuelan border with Colombia a safe area to rest, trans-ship drugs and arms, and procure logistical supplies."
Craddock has also expressed concern that the Venezuelans, under Chavez's leadership, have been amassing a huge arsenal which is reported to include over 50 Mig-29 warplanes and 100,000 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Will those weapons wind up being distributed to other countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean? That is certainly a legitimate worry.
When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Brazil in late March he raised criticism of Venezuela's arms purchases, appearing with Vice President and Defense Minister Jose Alencar. "I can't understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s," Rumsfeld said.
Alencar bit his lip when it came to any expression of criticism or concern about the Venezuelan arms buildup, relying on platitudes about his country's long-standing
Reich asserts Chavez and Castro are bad news. I think that we need to be equally concerned about Brazil under its leftist President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who appears to be above the fray while his colleagues, Chavez and Castro, get down and dirty. Lula, as he is called, has appeared to be somewhat more moderate than critics expected in some of his policies since taking power. The moderation is illusory, however.
Lula has proposed a summit, which will be held in May, with the 22 Arab countries that comprise the Arab League including Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Syria and Libya.
Lula presents his work as the building of a "South-South" economic alliance between two regions that have little in common with the North. One of the things he does not mention is that his country and many of the Middle Eastern countries turn a blind eye toward terrorism and human rights.
Representatives in Congress, including Chris Smith (R-NJ), signed a letter in 2002 just before Lula's election. The letter noted that Lula had worked with Castro in the 1990s to establish a regular meeting of leftists called the "Forum of Sao Paolo." The 2001 meeting included the FARC, with its long record of committing violence, killing on average 3,500 people a year, and evident intent on destabilizing Colombia's democratically elected government.
Lula visited Syria in late 2003, endorsing the idea of a Palestinian state. Syria has a reputation for being a haven for Palestinian terrorists, a fact that did not escape notice in the Brazilian press. He also visited Libya and exchanged warm words with Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhafi, the President of Libya. Jornal do Brasil noted that Nicaraguan leftist leader Daniel Ortega was also at the dinner and Lula is reported to have said, "Today, as President of Brazil, I never forget those who were my friends before I became president."
Americans need to become aware that we face a significant threat to our security in our own backyard. Leaders such as Chavez, Castro and Lula have no real concern for human rights but they mean our country ill will. A Lula may be more polished now, presenting himself as a reformer, not a revolutionary. We should not be fooled nor should our nation's policymakers be gulled into complacency about Latin America because we are so concerned about the Middle East. The world's troubles are not just taking place in a distant part of the globe, it's happening in our own backyard, too. It's about time we wake up to that fact.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.
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