The Washington Times
December 09, 2006
Venezuela's citizens have voted. Despite a relationship with the U.S. that borders on belligerent, Hugo Chavez has been re-elected to a second six-year term by a wide margin. Our diplomats charged with dealing with this sometimes threatening and always amusing character have repeatedly been caught flat-footed in Caracas.
The former paratrooper jailed after leading a failed 1992 coup rose to power just six years later in most improbable circumstances -- from jail to elected leader of our largest oil-importing neighbor. He has since become a magnet for political revolutionaries, dissatisfied agents of change and most importantly, enemies of the United States.
Mr. Chavez's re-election will cement his position as first among equals among South American "strongmen" who are tweaking President Bush's nose in the Latin American arena. However, it is more than tweaking that we should worry about after the Venezuelan electi! on. The concern to the U.S. is both economic and military.
Granted, Mr. Chavez is a showman, but he is much more. He runs a country flush with oil wealth and is not shy about spending it in ways that benefit not the growing poverty class in his country but rather arms suppliers in Russia, Europe, China and elsewhere.
Mr. Chavez has made no secret of his disdain for George Bush's policies. In the fall at the U.N. General Assembly, he got personal -- calling Mr. Bush "The devil." That slapstick venture into international, stand-up comedy made many laugh, but it didn't do much to calm our allies in Latin America. Nor has Mr. Chavez's penchant for military hardware.
President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Venezuela's neighbor to the west, and Washington's strongest ally in the region, is embroiled in a bloody, 44-year-old conflict that has claimed a quarter-million lives. The Colombians have long! suspected (not without good reason) the Chavez government sup! ports th e narco-guerrillas in Colombia prosecuting that conflict.
Mr. Chavez embraces these terrorists as another manifestation of the growing "Bolivarian Revolution" in the region. I have met with Colombian government officials face-to-face in their country, and they have confirmed Mr. Chavez has given these terrorists safe haven and support. After his re-election, it is very likely Mr. Chavez will increase his support for the guerrillas to his west, and the intensity of his fiery speeches as part of his effort to move the revolution forward into Ecuador, Bolivia and the rest of South America.
The Venezuelan strongman has made no secret of his recent purchases of military equipment and weaponry. Squadrons of high-performance SU-29 jet fighters, 100,000 new AK-47 assault rifles, and a fleet of Mi-17 helicopters from Russia, are all part of the Venezuelan military's new inventory thanks to their big-spending president. The com! bat patrol boats he is considering buying are high-tech models not usually suitable for mere coastal patrol, which makes his Caribbean neighbors increasingly uneasy.
All these new purchases have caused great concern at the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command in Miami. Former Southern Command Gen. Bantz Craddock has called Mr. Chavez "the single most destabilizing force in the region."
Mr. Chavez relishes such attention. He actively rallies his countrymen with charges the Bush administration plans to invade Venezuela and steal its oil. Such claims are widely accepted among Venezuela's huge, poverty-stricken masses who themselves have gained nothing from Mr. Chavez's antics except rhetoric. But they do like the anti-U.S. rhetoric. Thousands of Venezuelans have reported for militia training from his National Guard, and the ranks are growing steadily.
When Mr. Chavez is not sitting at Fidel! Castro's bedside absorbing lessons from his mentor, he meets ! with lea ders of Syria's and Iran's radical governments, setting up exchanges in oil technology and heaven knows what else. U.S. intelligence continues to warn about Venezuela's open-door policy to Syria and Iran and the obvious threat from elements of Hezbollah in our hemisphere.
The American people should turn their faces south to get a good look at what we will face now that the Venezuelan strongman begins his next six years as president of our No. 1 oil provider in our hemisphere. The prices at the pump will stare back at us; but there's much more there to worry about than higher prices.
Bob Barr is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia and a former U.S. Attorney there.