August 28 is a significant date for the Western Hemisphere. Colombia and Honduras will stand again in the limelight. They are there primarily thanks to Venezuela’s authoritarian-populist Hugo Chavez, a man who increasingly crafts the rules for setting Latin America’s political and security agenda.
In Bariloche, Argentina, leaders representing the 12 members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will debate a U.S.-Colombian decision to utilize airfields in Colombia for anti-drug operations. Chavez wants UNASUR to condemn the U.S. and Colombia’s President Uribe for an agreement that will allow U.S. access to air fields in Colombia. He wants to put Colombia and the U.S. in the dock and turn a reasonable modification of U.S. counter-drug efforts into a full blown South American security crisis.
Adhering to a new “Bolivarian” security doctrine, Chavez strives to exclude the U.S. from South and Central America just as the Monroe Doctrine once kept extra-hemispheric powers away from the Americas. Still a staunch supporter of Iran and Russia’s expanded role in the region, Chavez aims to turn public opinion against the U.S. While he may not get all he wants in Argentina, the UNASUR emergency summit, its air of high drama, as well as making U.S.-Colombia relations a wedge issue means the region is inclined to play by Chavez rules.
In Honduras, two months have passed since the June 28 removal of Chavez-ally Manuel Zelaya from the presidency by the Supreme Court and the military. The events leading up to Zelaya’s firing for violating the Honduran constitution plainly bear Chavez’s fingerprints. The acute fear that Zelaya was about to turn Honduras into a mini-Venezuela created the crisis in the first place. Chavez’s financial and political support emboldened Zelaya to overreach himself in an attempt to perpetuate his stay in office.
Two months later the Chavez and company still want the arsonist returned to put out the blaze. Having hastily joined the multilateral consensus that condemned the defensive actions of Honduras’ Supreme Court and legislature as a “coup”, the Obama Administration still insists Zelaya must be returned to office. While a democratic outcome in Honduras hinges on the legitimacy and fairness of the November electoral process, Washington joins with Chavez in pressing for Zelaya’s return.
Like his mentor, Fidel Castro, Chavez is adept at tweaking the exposed guilt nerve that is part of the wiring of the progressive, Latin American policy mindset. He wants to make us look apologetic, vacillating and fearful of collective censure. Wherever U.S. interests collide with those favored by Chavez, the chief rule of game remains one of the oldest in international politics: “What is mine is mine, what is yours is negotiable.”