Two Good Ones on Latin America

Monday, January 16, 2006

I just briefly perused a couple of articles on the situation in Latin America, one of them quite long, and am noting them here for future reference. I haven't the time or inclination to examine the longer one (a symposium from FrontPage Magazine), but will instead point out a few of its highlights, especially when they pertain to the second, shorter article.

Power Vacuum

The symposium (via Babalu Blog) notes that the United States has been ignoring Latin America, and that various Leftists dictators, most notably Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, have happily been filling the power vacuum. Below is a good sketch of the general picture.

Democracy is unraveling in Bolivia and Ecuador, and is under assault in Nicaragua and Mexico where the Venezuelan government has sent activist ambassadors to aid the campaigns of leftist politicians. Meanwhile, renewed turmoil in the region will cost the United States in lost trade, security woes, rising drug and arms trafficking, and floodtides of migrants fleeing closed societies patterned on the ramblings of an island-bound sociopath.
The essential problem seems to be that in addition to our nation ignoring the region in recent years (at least partly because we have been preoccupied with other concerns), capitalism has not taken root there. This power vacuum thus emboldens the likes of Chavez to take advantage of the opportunities the region's poverty and his unearned oil wealth present.
There is a big opening for Cuba and Venezuela to provide doctors, teachers, oil, and other forms of aid, financed mainly by Venezuelan oil revenues -- and as in any aid program, there will be political benefits for the donor. This aid will also highlight ways in which many Latin Americans do not see eye to eye with many Americans. First, they have few qualms about the collaboration. Uribe in Colombia, for example, has welcomed thousands of Cuban teachers, last week thanked Cuba for hosting peace talks between his government and Colombian guerrillas, and recently signed a long-term energy pact with Venezuela that includes big investment projects. Second, people in countries with poor systems of delivery of social services are likely to admire Cuba's health care system because of its universal reach. They could care less about its deficiencies. They are happy to have a Cuban doctor in a place where no doctor has been before.
I have already mentioned about such tactics here: "free" eye operations for foreigners in Cuba, the foreign deployment of Cuban physicians to Paraguay, and even, in the United States itself, "oil for the poor" programs in districts with congressmen sympathetic to Chavez!

What to do?

The panelists offer a wide range of predictions and prescriptions for the mess that we are finding ourselves in, most of which I will pass over. But I would like to examine a few things that came up to give an idea of how what a mess there is.

Luis Posada Carriles and Consistency

On the second page of the symposium, panelist Philip Peters has the following to say regarding one Luis Posada Carriles, whom I have discussed here a couple of times.
[L]ast year there was the matter of Luis Posada Carriles, a man who by all accounts of U.S. investigative agencies was involved in the destruction of a Cuban civilian airliner, its passengers and crew near Barbados in 1976, and who by his own account was behind attacks on civilians in Cuba in the early 1990's. In other words, he's a terrorist by today's definition. He entered U.S. territory illegally and was detained and placed in immigration limbo only after he held a bizarre press conference that forced the Administration's hand. No Administration official has stepped to a microphone to call him a terrorist, none of the Administration's legal creativity in bringing terrorists to justice has been brought to bear on his case. (And creativity is needed because extradition to Venezuela or Cuba would be problematic.) The message to the hemisphere seems to be that in the case of this terrorist, there is an exception to the toughest anti-terrorism policy the United States has ever had.
Hearing this, I immediately wanted to pat myself on the back for my own elegant solution to the dilemma. But another panelist brings up a few more relevant points.

Posada is often brought up in the context of how our failure to treat him as a terrorist makes our nation look hypocritical, but panelist Humberto Fontova, who takes the issue of the United States as needing to fight a war of ideas seriously, rips asunder the whole idea of prosecuting Posada for terrorism. (As he recently did the Che Guevara fad.)
[R]egarding Posada Carriles, that's a red herring Castro keeps fishing out. To think that by stabbing Posada Carriles in the back AGAIN (he was a Bay of Pigs operative) the U.S. government would gain the respect of Latins (who traditionally value loyalty to family and friends) is absolutely crazy ... There's indeed an outrageous double standard regarding U.S. treatment of Posada Carriles. Allow me a few bullet points:

* The Havana-incited media orgy against him leaves out many pertinent facts. As in the Elian case, Castro's U.S. echo chamber again chants constantly about "the rule of law." Yet they neglect to mention that Carriles has been twice acquitted of the crime by Venezuelan courts. Doesn't "the rule of law" also mean protection against double jeopardy? The United States, the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the International Criminal Court and the Venezuelan government itself when it tried Mr. Carriles all uphold this principle.

* The Cuban government itself is currently harboring 77 fugitives from U.S justice, many on the FBI's most wanted list. And unlike Mr. Carriles, who besides his acquittals, also passed a lie detector test on the plane bombing matter -- many of the U.S. fugitives Castro harbors have been convicted by U.S. juries of murder and terror. Yet Castro has repeatedly and scornfully rebuffed every request for their return. Why not play that up in any "battle of ideas?"
The well-known leftward bias of our news media and its tendency to fawn over Castro (as one of the world's "longest-'serving'" rulers) casts much of what we ordinary citizens know about Latin America into doubt.

What to do about Chavez?

Similarly, the panelists differed on what to do about Hugo Chavez. Peters, for example, maintained that our ready acceptance of the apparent ouster of El Loco a few years back did not inspire much confidence among Latin Americans.
In April 2002, the immediate and indelible U.S. reaction to the failed coup against Hugo Chavez sent a message that we were happy with the coup and prepared to accept its result -- notwithstanding the fact that successive U.S. Administrations had pressed OAS countries to act automatically to reverse coups and other actions against elected governments. A well-founded distaste for Chavez' conduct resulted in a message that the United States accepts coups of a certain stripe -- a message that damages U.S. leadership in defense of democracy.
Certainly, if we were to accept Venezuelan election results at face value, and if our nation were truly in the business of supporting "democracy", he would be right, but we do not -- or should not. In Amit Ghate's words:
Yet our leaders, by their misplaced emphasis on democracy, imply that even if a foreign nation is explicitly and violently hostile to the US, it's fine as long as their government is duly elected!

To avoid such potentially catastrophic errors, both in foreign and domestic policies, we must dispense with our focus on democracy and voting -- to instead champion the proper form of government: a constitutional republic; and its guiding principle: the defense of each individual's right to life.
Explicitly supporting the correct principles here would certainly both free our hand to overthrow Chavez, allow us to act more consistently with our actual ideals, and produce results far more conducive to our national security than the current situation. Interestingly, even Fontova says, "I [do not] propose we smash any regime in Latin America right now", perhaps illustrating the deep penetrance of the incorrect understanding of "democracy" I discussed by Ghate above.

From the muddled mess presented at the symposium, no clear consensus arises from my cursory reading, but it is clear that one of our problems in fighting a "war of ideas" is that we are not presenting our ideas very well (e.g., Posada) -- even when our leaders can be said to be in possession of them at all (e.g., arguably not with regards to Chavez)!

What lies ahead?

It is clear that the various kleptocracies that rule Latin America die when the loot runs out. Those of the two main players, Castro and Chavez, are worth examining since the one has not and the other will take at least awhile to run out. First, let's look at how Castro has managed to win U.S. media acclaim as "longest-'serving'" in the backdrop of other dictators:
These Latin leftists, (except Castro, and he'd have less space in the Encyclopedia than Pancho Villa had Nixon won in 1960) come and go. The loot eventually runs out. Castro lived the first few years on what he stole from Cuba's productive sector, then the Russians pumped the equivalent of ten(!) Marshall Plans into Cuba. Now he's got Chavez. He's been both shrewd and lucky. The Sandinistas ran out of the loot they stole from Nicaragua's productive sector just at the time the Soviet Union crumbled.
So does that mean that Chavez would be able to support the Castro regime indefinitely with oil, barring American intervention? Not necessarily, because economies can't run on orders alone. For this bit of the puzzle, we must turn to the second piece I mentioned, from the Wall Street Journal.
With Venezuelan oil fields experiencing an annual depletion rate on the order of 25% and little government reinvestment in the sector, similar infrastructure problems [to a major bridge collapse near Caracas earlier this month] are looming in oil. In November, Goldman Sachs emerging markets research commented on a fire at a "major refinery complex" in which 20 workers were injured: "In recent months there has been a string of accidents and other disruptions [of] oil infrastructure, which oil experts attribute to inadequate investment in maintenance and lack of technical expertise to run complex oil refining and exploration operations."
Unless Venezuela begins plowing some serious money into its oil sector (or has someone from the outside do so) and fast, the Great South American Gravy Train will come screeching to a halt.

One such foreign player is likely China, which already has major petroleum deals with Venezuela and has a habit of propping up despots all over the globe. Ominously, there is another player: Iran. It is in fact the main point of the Wall Street Journal piece!
Details on the Iranian "factories"--beyond a high-profile tractor producer and a widely publicized cement factory--remain sketchy. But what is clear is that the importation of state agents from Hugo-friendly dictatorships hasn't been a positive experience for Venezuelans. Imported Cubans are now applying their "skills" in intelligence and state security networks to the detriment of Venezuelan liberty. It is doubtful that the growing presence of Iranians in "factories" across Venezuela is about boosting plastic widget output. The U.S. intelligence agencies would do well to make a greater effort to find out exactly what projects the Chavez-Ahmadinejad duo really have in mind. Almost certainly, they are up to no good.
Notably, there is little talk (in the symposium) of U.S. action to depose Chavez, even when the likelihood of Venezuela's potential to become involved in terrorism or other threats to our national security is brought up. This seemed rooted in a common misconception that our nation must appear to be a consistent voice for "democracy", but also involved other considerations. And very interestingly, the symposium did not being in the problem that the lack of investment would cause to Venezuela's energy sector. But then, with Iran and China waiting in the wings, maybe they didn't have to.

-- CAV

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