April 26, 2002


Bush Must Change Latin America Policy or Risk New Security Threat

By Francisco Jose Moreno and Alejandro Eggers Moreno

Unchecked, U.S. policy toward Latin America will jeopardize U.S. national security, with the threat coming not from across the ocean but from our own hemisphere. Washington’s response virtually supporting the coup against a freely elected president, Hugo Chavez, was the tip of the iceberg — worth examining for what it tells us about the need for a change of course on the continent.

Most Latin American governments do not like Chávez, but they like the return of military rule to the continent even less. They said so immediately when businessmen and generals took over on April 11. In contrast, the United States was caught criticizing a victim not to its liking — Chavez — rather than the perpetrators of the clearly illegal act. Now, with Chavez reinstated, the U.S. policy line lies exposed and looks vulnerable.

The Bush team has been so immersed in the global battle against terrorism and the Middle East crisis that it is tempting to regard its response as a diplomatic slip under pressure. But there was no slip. The Bush administration calls for the same dogma-driven economic measures in every country, overlooking specific issues inherent in national and regional politics regardless of the effect on political stability.

This is particularly dangerous in Venezuela, where the population is leery of any government that begins to resemble the business-dominated bureaucracies of the pre-Chávez years.

During that period, Venezuela’s budding middle class was slowly strangled by a government that wholeheartedly (albeit corruptly) adopted U.S.-backed economic policies whose top priority was the protection of foreign investments — not the sound development of the country’s economy. We saw this inversion of logical priorities while advising the administrations of Chavez’ presidential predecessors, Carlos Andres Perez and Rafael Caldera.

We saw that the policies those presidents finally decided to follow resulted in an over-concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and a drastic decrease in living conditions for everyone else. One U.N. statistic dramatically illustrates their effects: from 1983 to 1986 the percentage of the population living in “dire poverty” jumped from 11 to 22 percent; by 1992 it was 67 percent; now it hovers around 80 percent.

As a result, Venezuelans are highly suspect of the type of market reforms the Bush administration seeks. Chávez was only able to attain overwhelming electoral popularity by promising to reverse the policies of the previous governments. Although he has failed to turn around Venezuela’s fortunes, no one has forgotten the legacy of his predecessors. Even the hard-line, anti-Chávez officers who organized the coup turned on interim President Pedro Carmona, a prominent businessman, when he moved too quickly dismantle Chávez biggest reforms.

The Bush administration, however, blithely ignored this basic fact as it approved — even encouraged — Chávez’s opponents. It managed to arouse suspicions among leaders of many Latin American countries by pushing too hard for a market-driven government in one of their neighbors. It almost threw Venezuela into a civil war.

As Afghanistan, Somalia, the Palestinian Territories and other places have demonstrated, countries in chaos and political disarray form breeding grounds for discontent, violence, and ultimately, terrorism. As the Arab-Israeli conflict intensifies and threatens to entangle much of the Middle East, America must pay even more attention to protecting its other oil sources. Venezuela is the United States’ third-largest supplier.

The Bush policy toward Venezuela appears to be placing interests of investors ahead of political stability. Given the strategic importance of Venezuelan oil, this amounts to putting economic measures that benefit a limited number of people above concern for national security. This must change.

The crisis in Caracas is far from over. Sooner or later, Chávez will use his victory to advance his goals. In a confidential report now circulating among Venezuelan business leaders, civil strife and even civil war are considered possibilities that cannot be ruled out. Venezuela is next door to Colombia, where we have already committed billions of dollars to a dubiously effective anti-drug campaign with dozens of advisors on the ground, and where we are being asked not only to increase our presence, but to release drug-fighting aircraft and other material for use against rebels.

Now that the dust has settled, we should look at Venezuela with a realistic eye, realizing the threat that instability there implies and acknowledging the circumstances that make Chávez possible. We should separate those with whom we can make common cause from those who simply want us to reinstate their privileges. That is not an easy task, but one that has to be done if we are to prevent the emergence of an additional front for anti-American violence in our own backyard.

Francisco Jose Moreno and Alejandro Eggers Moreno are president and vice president, respectively, of Strategic Assessments, a consulting firm in Tiburon, Calif., and Washington, D.C. Francisco Jose Moreno taught political science at New York University for 21 years and was vice president for Latin America for Philip Morris International for 13 years.

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