Obama administration still lost when it comes to Latin America

Unfortunately, the Obama administration still lacks a coherent strategy for Latin America. Each of the four U.S. presidents who immediately preceded Barack Obama launched at least one major initiative in the Western Hemisphere.

Under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, trade liberalization became the lodestar of U.S. policy, resulting in NAFTA, an expansion of the Caribbean Basin Initiative trade programs, CAFTA and several bilateral free-trade pacts, including agreements with Chile, Peru, Colombia and Panama. Not only has the Obama team refused to push for significant new trade expansion, it cannot even persuade congressional Democrats to approve the Colombia and Panama deals, which were signed three years ago.

Rather than articulate a comprehensive Latin America policy, the Obama administration has reacted to events in an ad-hoc manner, which has created a perilous leadership vacuum. To the extent that it has a guiding philosophy, that philosophy appears to be a short-sighted form of realpolitik.

I am especially concerned about its approach to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. High-ranking American officials seem to believe that, however authoritarian and brutal his governing style, Chavez offers “stability” in the U.S.-Venezuela oil relationship.

It’s highly disturbing that such a school of thought exists in the upper echelons of American diplomacy. Every day that Chavez erodes democracy, Venezuela becomes less stable and bilateral energy relations become more tenuous.

Even if we ignore human rights and focus solely on petroleum, the “Bolivarian revolution” has been a disaster. Venezuelan oil production has dropped substantially under Chavez, who nationalized the industry and repeatedly threatened foreign companies. His treatment of foreign oil firms is of a piece with his broader approach to private sector businesses.

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, nationalization is the main reason why foreign direct investment in Venezuela plummeted from $349 million in 2008 to negative $3.1 billion in 2009.

Venezuela is now mired in a painful economic crisis. Voters are supposed to have an opportunity to vent their frustration in September legislative elections — except that many Venezuelans believe those elections will either be canceled or indefinitely postponed. In order to subjugate his opponents, Chavez has been mimicking his allies in Tehran and building his own version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. That makes a mockery of the idea that he’s somehow a force for “stability.”

Thus, for both humanitarian and practical reasons, the Obama administration should be standing up for Venezuelan democracy. But instead, Obama officials seem to be embracing value-free realpolitik. Such timid diplomacy, though often described as “realism,” is not realistic at all, if the goal is to foster stability. True stability will only be possible when Venezuela returns to the path of democracy — and that will only happen if the U.S. and its Latin American partners confront Chavez about his dangerous and destructive behavior.

Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.

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