Weakness on Chavez, Drugs and Terror Plague Obama’s Latin America Policy

Ray Walser /

The record will show that the May 9 extradition by Colombia of Walid Makled Garcia to Venezuela constitutes a major lost opportunity for the Obama Administration to interrogate and prosecute a Venezuelan drug kingpin with close ties to high-level Venezuelan officials and to expose the depth of narco-corruption within the Hugo Chavez regime in Venezuela.

Makled’s extradition follows the decision by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian courts to honor the Venezuelan request for extradition over a similar request made by the U.S. In exchange for Makled, the Colombians are banking on closer commercial and security ties, including reduced support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with the imperious and unpredictable Chavez.

The relationship between Chavez and the narco-terrorists of the FARC is again the subject of careful international scrutiny following release of a detailed examination and analysis of links between the FARC and Venezuela by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The study includes the most complete set of documents recovered from the laptop of Raul Reyes, the FARC’s chief of staff, who was killed during a daring military strike by Colombian forces in March 2008 in his safe haven on Ecuador’s soil.

The study reviews the long record of collaboration by Chávez and his top confidants with the FARC, which they viewed as “an ally that would keep U.S. and Colombian military strength in the region tied down in counterinsurgency, helping to reduce perceived threats against Venezuela.”

The return of Makled to Venezuela and the release of the IISS study are important reminders of the serious regional security threat posed by the Chavez regime, a threat the Obama Administration has routinely downplayed.

The persistent Chavez threat prompted the introduction for debate and passage on May 4 of H.R. 247, which reviews Chavez’s record of support for terrorism and “(1) condemns the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela for its state-sponsored support of international terrorist groups; (2) calls on the Secretary of State to designate Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism; and (3) urges increased and sustained cooperation on counter-terrorism initiatives between the Government of the United States and allies in the region.” Placing Chavez on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is a measure that is long overdue.

Overall, the highly contentious nature of the U.S.–Chavez relationship is also being increasingly documented in further releases of cables from the U.S. embassy in Caracas.

Following President Obama’s trip to Latin America, the Administration has moved into reorganize mode as the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela recently announced that he is returning to academia later this summer. During Valenzuela’s nearly two-year tenure at State, improvements in regional policy for the Western Hemisphere have been difficult to identify, as Chavez appeared to run roughshod over the region with little reaction from the Administration.

Former Foreign Policy editor Moises Naim described U.S. policy for Latin America as “well-sounding, well-meaning, but cliché-ridden and, ultimately, irrelevant.”

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–FL), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did not mince words. She argued that Valenzuela’s time at State has been “marked by abject failure by the U.S. to stand up to the attacks against democracy and fundamental freedoms. U.S. interests have suffered as a result.”