Focuses on Southern 'Axis of Evil'
Analysis by Jim Lobe
While U.S. President George W. Bush played
nice to a deeply frustrated Mexican President Vicente Fox at the North American Summit Wednesday, U.S. media attention was
focused on Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to sound the alarm against Latin American troublemakers.
Mar 24 (IPS) - While U.S. President George W. Bush played nice to a deeply frustrated Mexican President Vicente Fox at
the North American Summit in Texas Wednesday, U.S. media attention was focused more on Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld's efforts
to sound the alarm against Latin American troublemakers in his swing through the region this week.
Topping his list
was populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, followed by a nemesis from bygone days, former Nicaraguan President Daniel
Ortega, who was accused by an unnamed ”senior official” in Rumsfeld's delegation of hoarding several hundred Russian-made
surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that Washington wants to see destroyed.
Indeed, at the start of Rumsfeld's trip, Washington
announced the suspension of all U.S. military assistance to Nicaragua -- about 2.3 million dollars' worth -- pending the destruction
of the missiles that Washington contend might be obtained by terrorists.
At the same time, the right-wing National
Review published a cover story by Bush's top Latin America aide during his first term, Otto Reich, on ”Latin America's
Terrible Two”, referring to Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro. The magazine's cover, with a photo of the two men
in close conversation, featured a banner reading ”The Axis of Evil ...Western Hemisphere Version.”
the combination of Castro's evil genius, experience in political warfare, and economic desperation, and Chavez' unlimited
money and recklessness, the peace of this region is in peril,” wrote Reich, who remains influential with his former
colleagues, including his more diplomatic successor, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega.
”The emerging axis of subversion forming between Cuba and Venezuela must be confronted before it can undermine
democracy in Colombia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, or another vulnerable neighbour,” he wrote, echoing a series of opinion pieces
that have appeared mostly in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal in recent weeks.
Rumsfeld's efforts appeared
to be part of an orchestrated campaign that began in January when, during her confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice referred to Chavez as a ”negative force” in the region.
Last week, the Miami Herald reported that
Bush himself was taking a personal interest in Chavez' actions and rhetoric and that various policy options to toughen Washington's
stance toward Caracas, including efforts to discredit the Venezuelan leader for alleged corruption, and to persuade his neighbours,
notably Brazil, to distance themselves from him, were now being actively pursued.
”We need to have a strategy
to contain Chavez,” said Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon's top Latin America official, at a recent defence conference
Pardo-Maurer, a hard-liner whose thinking is close to that of Reich and Noriega, later told the Financial
Times that Chavez ”is picking on the countries whose social fabric is the weakest. In some cases, it's downright subversion.”
The fact that Rumsfeld chose Brasilia as the place from which to issue his strongest attack on Chavez yet -- assailing
Venezuela's decision to buy 100,000 AK-47s from Russia -- suggested that such a strategy is already in play.
can't imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s, I can't imagine what is going to happen to 100,000 AK-47s,” Rumsfeld
said just before his meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has served as a mediator between Washington
and Caracas in the past.
If the shipment goes through, Rumsfeld added, ”it wouldn't be good for the hemisphere.”
But the AK-47s, which some U.S. officials have suggested may be intended for left-wing guerrillas next door in Colombia
or even for followers of indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia, are not the administration's only complaint against Chavez,
whose government has insisted that the guns will be used to replace the 35,000-man army's aging stocks of FAL rifles.
sees the AK-47 order as part of a much larger arms build-up, financed by high global oil prices, that may include the purchase
of fighter jets from Brazil, gunboats from Spain, and as many as 50 assault attack helicopters and 30 MIG-29 fighter jets
”These and other Venezuelan military acquisitions (the amount of weapons transferred from Cuba
or China is not known) threaten the peace of the entire region,” warned Reich who noted that, in addition to Colombia,
Nicaragua and Bolivia were most vulnerable to subversion.
Washington is also increasingly worried about the larger
geo-strategic implications of Chavez' petro-policies.
The United States currently imports about 1.5 million barrels
of oil a day from Venezuela -- or about 60 percent of Venezuela's total oil exports. But Chavez, who has warned that he will
cut off the oil supplies if Washington tries to overthrow him, has been trying to diversify his customers.
months, he has signed contracts with France, India and China, whose Vice President Zeng Qinghong he hosted in January, one
month after Chavez met with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, in Beijing.
To help with his diversification effort,
Chavez further alienated Washington by commissioning Iranian technical assistance. Earlier this month, he hosted Iranian President
Mohammed Khatami, to whom he expounded on Teheran's right ”to develop atomic energy and to continue its research in
that area” and voiced his ”profound rejection of the imperialist desires of the U.S. government.”
the same time, he has provided oil at cut-rate prices to Cuba in exchange for the services of thousands of doctors and teachers
(Reich refers to them as ”indoctrinators”) working in rural areas and urban slums.
What makes all of this
even more threatening to the Bush administration are the leftward political trends throughout Latin America, as Reich himself
conceded despite their reflection on his own stewardship of U.S. policy.
Citing ”press reports” that a
”leftist-populist alliance is engulfing most of South America,” Reich, who also suggests that Ortega's Sandinistas
may soon be voted back into power in Nicaragua, notes that ”this is the reality U.S. policymakers must confront; and
our pressing specific challenge is neutralising the Cuba-Venezuela axis.”
The key to doing so, he argues, is
by distinguishing between ”democratic leftists,” who in his view include Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and Brazil's
Lula, and the radical populists who are presumably subject to the subversive influences of Chavez and Castro.
real danger to regional peace and stability today does not emanate as much from those relatively new democratically elected
president as it does from two demagogues who have been around a while longer: Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez,” according
To some critics, the campaign against Chavez and other radicals could well prove counter-productive.
as if these people have a compulsive need to see Latin American reality only through a Manichean lens whereby they have to
identify an evil force to mobilise against and the complexities of the region get simplified into these dualisms of good and
evil,” said Geoffrey Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.
dealing with Castro as evil incarnate, and we've made ourselves a laughingstock throughout the region and done nothing to
effectively to encourage democratisation and human rights in Cuba,” he added. ”If we approach Chavez the same
way, we're likely to have the same results.”