Prospect of Six More Years of Chavez Alarms Conservatives

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - The specter of Hugo Chavez winning a new six-year term Sunday has conservative analysts and lawmakers in the U.S. deeply concerned, given the Venezuelan president's anti-American fervor, Russian weapons deals, and ties to rogue regimes with nuclear ambitions.

Adding to the worries are suspicions, raised by members of Congress, that Venezuela may be facilitating entry into the region - and ultimately into the United States - of Islamist radicals. (See Related Story)

Many analysts believe Chavez is trying to position himself as a successor to Fidel Castro, Cuba's ailing communist dictator, to lead a new far-left coalition aimed at undermining U.S. interests in the region.

Stephen Johnson, a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, said the level of adulation leftist leaders have for Castro is unlikely to be matched in the case of the Venezuelan.

At the same time, Johnson pointed out that the oil revenues available to Chavez furnish him with a degree of economic independence and power that Castro never had.

Al Santoli, director of the Asian-American Initiative in Washington D.C., agreed, saying Chavez could establish himself as an even more malevolent force than Castro, given the oil wealth at his disposal.

Like Castro, Chavez is forging strong military ties with Russia. The Heritage Foundation notes that Caracas recently signed contracts worth $3 billion to acquire some 30 Russian military airplanes, more than 50 helicopters and 100,000 assault rifles.

Chris Brown, director of education and research programs at the American Security Council Foundation (ASCF), views Chavez as a dangerous and de-stabilizing influence in the Western hemisphere.

Since he was elected in 1998, Brown said, Chavez has moved to establish "absolute control" over his government while forging an anti-American alliance with some of the world's most belligerent regimes.

In addition to cementing military ties with Russia, Chavez is playing host to North Koreans and Iranians who are searching for sources of uranium, Brown claimed.

Assuming Chavez wins re-election (See Related Story), he said he anticipates the Venezuelan leader would continue to accelerate his ties with other governments that are opposed to the U.S.

Brown told Cybercast News Service he fears Caracas has already become a way station for the influx of dangerous weaponry and a platform for rogue regimes determined to gain a foothold in "America's backyard."

The concern was echoed by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who told Cybercast News Service Chavez could become a conduit for the introduction of weapons of mass destruction into Latin America.

'Social liberation'

Even some who are otherwise sympathetic towards Chavez are unsettled by controversial acts such as his high-profile visits to Iran and North Korea and his labeling President Bush "the devil" in an address before the U.N. General Assembly last September.

"He's fast on rhetoric and gets involved with too many issues without sufficient prior thought," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) and a defender of Chavez.

Jeffrey Laurenti, senior fellow at the liberal Century Foundation, agrees that Chavez's overtures to regimes at odds with the United States are placing Venezuela's Latin American neighbors in an awkward position.

Other left-of-center leaders such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, declared the winner in a presidential election runoff this week, "all have a balancing act [they must maintain] between a leftist heart and the realities of making an economy deliver to their people and this leads back to cooperation with Washington," Laurenti said.

Nonetheless, Laurenti disputed that Chavez poses a threat to the American people. "What he is is a threat to the anti-Castro vision of the American right and of the hard-line Cuban exile community," he argued.

Birns also rose to Chavez's defense, crediting him with "revolutionizing the country" by introducing a multitude of reforms advancing the cause of "social liberation" in the country.

Birns said, for example, that there was a time in that not too distant past when medical doctors would not visit the poorer regions of the country. But they do now, Birns said, and Chavez deserves at least some of the credit.

The economic climate has also improved while Chavez has been in office, Birns told Cybercast News Service.

"I'm convinced that Chavez is the temporary custodian of a marvelous political idea - the fusion of economic socialism and political constitutionalism - the kind of experiment that never took place in the Soviet Union under the horrors of Stalinism," Birns said.

"Here you have the model opportunity for what Karl Marx spoke about - the opportunity for a country of democratic institutions that is expanding its constitutionalism in the direction of a socialist economy."

Birns said the antipathy public officials in Washington have toward Chavez stemmed from a distorted notion the U.S. has of its "backyard."

"Washington's backyard is the biggest backyard in the world," Birns said. "But it doesn't allow for the notion that other countries have backyards as well."

See Related Stories:
Suspected Venezuela-Islamist Links Worry Lawmakers, Experts (Dec. 1, 2006)
Chavez Predicted to Win Re-Election (Dec. 1, 2006)

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