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 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 (not available online). 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."
"With 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 neighbor," 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 neighbors, 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 defense conference in Miami.
Pardo-Maurer, a hardliner 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.
"I 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.
Washington sees the AK-47 order as part of a much larger arms buildup, 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 from Russia.
"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.
In recent 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 Tehran'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."
At 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 neutralizing 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.
"The 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 Reich.
To some critics, the campaign against Chavez and other radicals could well prove counterproductive.
"It's as if these people have a compulsive need to see Latin American reality only through a Manichaean lens whereby they have to identify an evil force to mobilize 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.
"We've been dealing with Castro as evil incarnate, and we've made ourselves a laughingstock throughout the region and done nothing to effectively to encourage democratization and human rights in Cuba," he added. "If we approach Chavez the same way, we're likely to have the same results."
Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.