Thursday, June 5, 2008

Democrats need to get it right on Chavez

For over six years, the Florida-based non-profit organization, Free Venezuela, Inc. worked to complete its mission of educating the American public and elected officials about the ongoing socio-political crisis in Venezuela. Six years ago, our warnings that Hugo Chavez posed a real and present danger to the National Security of the United States, and to regional stability and development, were met with skepticism.

But time proved us correct.

One would have to be living in a cave to not be aware of the multiple and serious international complaints against the government of Hugo Chavez, its expansionist policies, repeated interventions in the internal affairs of surrounding sovereign nations, weapons accumulation, ties to terrorist and violent revolutionary groups, and other threatening actions and policies.

During the height of the 2004 Presidential campaign, Free Venezuelan leadership analyzed the positions of the candidates (George Bush and John Kerry) with regard to their positions on the looming crisis in Venezuela, and made friendly contacts within both camps, in order to ensure that the candidates were fully informed about the situation and hopefully would include the crisis in their policy statements.

To our great pleasure, the Kerry campaign responded by publishing a very brave statement that criticized many of the Chavez regime’s most nefarious actions and let it be known that, were he elected, John Kerry would keep a close watch on the developing situation. This comment was widely commented on by the Hispanic population in Florida. After all, Chavez’s policies have direct and dire implications for not just the Venezuelan community, but for Colombians, Bolivians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, and—most importantly considering their numbers as voters in Florida—the Cubans. It highlighted the Bush administrations lack of leadership in the hemisphere. And it also sent a very powerful signal directly to Hugo Chavez: Americans of both parties see through the propaganda, and recognize that the Chavez policies are destructive to region stability.

Looking forward

As the 2008 elections loom near, Republican Presidential John McCain has taken a hard line against Cuba and Venezuela.
Arizona Senator has called Cuba "a national security threat," adding that "as president, I will not passively await the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship ... The Cuban people have waited long enough." He is an adamant supporter of Colombia’s President Uribe, who has enjoyed striking successes in his long battle against the FARC terrorists, and whose economy is expanding healthily thanks to trade agreements with the USA.

This stance is arguably the right position. Quite distressingly, the Democratic leadership embodied by the two frontrunners, Senators Clinton and Obama, initially made very lackluster statements to the effect that they would be willing to meet with Chavez either without conditions, or with only some pre-conditions. There has been very little willingness to confront the Chavez regime for its roll-back of constitutional protections, meddling in the affairs of other nations, questionable alliances with powers hostile to the United States, massive weapons purchases, etc.

Now that Senator Obama has apparently acquired the official candidacy for the Democrats, he has now begun to take a more hard line position on Venezuela. He is in a very weak position, however. His longstanding pacifist policies make any hawkish stance seem to be worthless saber-rattling.

Obama’s weak and waffling positions reinforce the stereotype that the Democratic leadership is lacking clarity, conviction, and spine.

How can the Democratic leadership claim to have international diplomatic skills and yet be so glaringly unaware of the dangers that are lurking in our own hemisphere? They should not be afraid to criticize Chavez’s policies, since by doing so they would be the good company of so many current and former heads of state. Even his some of his former international allies, Zapatero (Spain) and Da Silva (Brazil) have joined the chorus, with President Lula Da Silva stating that “it is a danger for Brazil and for Latin America for there to be a military power installed in the continent. An arms race would oblige us to divert funds from social spending to ensure military balance.”

The interventionist policies of Chávez government has had nefarious impacts on numerous nations in the hemisphere. From Ecuador to Mexico, Bolivia to Argentina, and especially in neighboring Colombia, there is a growing outcry that Chávez has illicitly funneled millions of dollars into those nations to influence elections and strengthen leftist groups across the region.
In the most recent and most infamous case, the FBI has concrete evidence that the Chávez government covertly funneled large sums of money into Argentina to influence the election of Kristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The implications are frightening: the Castro-Chávez axis is using Venezuelan petro-dollars to destabilize the region and influence elections. In December, 2007, Chávez even had the temerity to threaten creating a “violent revolution” in Bolivia if the opposition there did not quit battling President Evo Morales.

The Democrats, who should be publicly laying claim to a long heritage of Diplomatic leadership in the Americas, are instead abdicating this leadership role to the more belligerent Republican Party. The Democrats must find a way to stand strong on international issues of national security and regional stability, but do so in a way that differentiates them from the more bellicose Republicans.

A proposal to the Democratic Leadership

So what can the Democrats do that will achieve the goals of 1) gathering Latino Votes to their party, 2) demonstrate consistency in their philosophy and policy, 3) showcase their resolve in tough international issues and diplomatic skills?

The solution is by taking an international leadership stance that offers a roadmap to actionable diplomatic solutions, which embodies the Democratic traditions, rather than bellicose saber rattling, which has typified the Republican approach.

Step One: Lead in the world bodies.

In keeping with the traditional Democratic philosophies to avoid violent conflict by allowing established world bodies to settle disputes and put constructive pressure on potentially dangerous governments, the Democratic presidential candidates should write a joint statement calling on the Organization of American States to hold an emergency session and consider applying the OAS Charter to the Venezuelan crisis.

A number of Latin American leaders have stated their frustration with the lack of action from the OAS. Most recently Bolivian ex-President Jorge Quiroga stated that Chavez has the majority of OAS member states under his control thanks to his use of petroleum as a weapon, and that the OAS is not living up to its mission.

Step Two: Involve former heads of state to create a strong, international approach with experienced, respected Latin American leaders.

Democrats should organize an international forum of former and current Latin American Presidents to air their complaints about the policies of the Chavez regime and to highlight their concerns about the consequences of the policies, as well as to propose legal, peaceful and diplomatic solutions.

Suggested participants; Arias (Costa Rica), Uribe (Colombia), Gutiérrez (Ecuador), Quiroga (Bolivia), Lagos (Chile), García (Perú), Toledo (Perú), Saca (El Salvador), and Aznar (Spain), Zapatero (Spain) and Da Silva (Brazil).

Step Three: Call for a study of the increasing regional militarization and imbalance and seek active policies to reverse the trend.

A number of Latin American Presidents, from Uribe in Colombia to Lula da Silva in Brazil, have remarked that they are concerned about the Venezuelan military buildup. Huge arms purchases from Russia, China, Belarus, and other nations should concern all Americans. Make policy proposals that would help neighboring nations correct the military imbalance that is being created.

Step Four: Take a leadership role in supporting the Venezuelan civil society that is attempting to defend its space within the society and guarantee the continuance of liberty and human rights.
The Democrats should request testimony before congress from independent organizations to provide unbiased reports about human rights violations, state sanctioned acts of violence, assaults on freedom of expression and the free press, and other undemocratic irregularities.

The Democrats could also propose a change in immigration policy to provide Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelans who are fleeing the increasing political repression, social chaos and violence in their nation.

Step Five: Call for investigations of the consistent and repeated accusations that the Venezuelan electronic electoral system has been rigged to allow the Central Government to control election results.

In conclusion

Up until now, the republican administration has neglected the situation, but the aggressive comments from McCain suggest that he may make it an election issue to highlight Obama's lack of experience.

The Democrats have got to find a way to appear to lead on these issues. Up until now, they have not been able to figure out what to do.

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