The recent midterm election in the United States didn’t just put the Republican Party in a greater position of influence over U.S. domestic policy — it also gave a small section of southern Florida significant power over the country’s diplomacy toward Latin America. The new Congress’s influential House Committee on Foreign Affairs will likely be chaired by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who represents the Miami area, while the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will likely be led by Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who represents the nearby Fort Myers area. Both lawmakers are throwback Latin American cold warriors, catering to their Cuban-American constituents with belligerent policies toward any neighboring government that seeks independence from U.S. influence. Needless to say, what’s satisfying for this narrow segment of Floridians won’t be in the United States’ greater national interest.
The duo’s intransigence will be most felt in terms of the five-decade-old embargo against Cuba, on which Ros-Lehtinen and Mack have refused to compromise, though most objectiveanalysts have questioned the policy’s strategic and tactical sense. They have also indicated that they will push President Barack Obama’s administration to end its attempt at nuanced diplomacy in Latin America and replace it with the George W. Bush administration’s simplistic policy of dividing the region into “friends” and “enemies.” Obama seemed to acknowledge the folly of this black-and-white approach to the region when he spoke of an “equal partnership” with the region and said that “we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements” in a 2009 speech at the Summit of the Americas.
But if certain members of Congress think they can drive a wedge among the countries of the region, they are mistaken. Latin American countries have been expanding their ties with one another — including a recent rapprochement between Venezuela and Colombia — and there is a deepening consensus that their differences should be worked out in an atmosphere of mutual respect. (The inaugural co-chairs of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional organization set to be founded in 2011, are Chile and Venezuela, two countries that don’t see eye to eye on everything, but are willing to cooperate.) For instance, even though the United States opposed Cuba’s entry to the Organization of American States, the group last year approved its readmittance. If Washington, instead of accepting this new reality, relies on antagonistic foreign-policy dogma to placate local constituencies, it will only lose in regional and global influence.
Now is an especially inopportune time for the United States to alienate its southern neighbors. Latin American countries are gaining in confidence and increasing their political and economic connections with the rest of the world, both regionally through organizations like UNASUR and bilaterally with countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It’s not just Latin America that needs the United States anymore; increasingly, the United States needs Latin America.
Unfortunately, Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are hard-line ideologues. Given that she once called for Fidel Castro’s assassination, it’s no surprise that Ros-Lehtinen is an anti-Cuba hawk. But she has in recent years also become more aggressive toward Venezuela. This year, for example, she made unsubstantiated accusations against Venezuela for serving as a conduit between the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and al Qaeda. In a March 11 interview with the Council of the Americas, Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of U.S. Southern Command, debunked those claims in no uncertain terms:”I don’t see any evidence of terrorist activity within Latin America or the Caribbean from outside of the region.”
Even more disturbing was Ros-Lehtinen’s meeting with Venezuelan terrorist Raúl Díaz in Miami several months ago. Díaz had just arrived in the United States after escaping prison in Venezuela, where he was serving a sentence for participating in the 2003 bombings of the Spanish and Colombian consulates in Caracas. It is troubling that Ros-Lehtinen would think it appropriate to use the powers of her office to extend legitimacy to a violent criminal simply because he opposes Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. (Venezuela has yet to receive any answers on how Díaz could have been granted a visa to enter the United States in the first place.)
Ros-Lehtinen has also remained conspicuously quiet on Luis Posada Carriles, a Venezuelan-Cuban dual national wanted in Venezuela for the 1973 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner that left 73 innocent people dead. Posada snuck into the United States in 2005 after years of clandestine operations in Central America and Cuba, many for the CIA. He now lives in South Florida awaiting the start of a postponed trial on immigration-related charges. Venezuela’s repeated requests for extradition have remained unanswered.
But in terms of anti-Venezuelan enmity, Ros-Lehtinen is outdone by Mack, who, though newer to the House, has quickly established himself as the Republicans’ go-to hard liner on Chávez. He has called Chávez a “sworn enemy of the United States” and more recently called on Obama to deal with the “inherent threat that Chávez poses to our nation and the region.”
More shockingly, though, Mack has twice introduced resolutions to have Venezuela added to the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move supported by Ros-Lehtinen. Just recently, I received letters from a number of the 37 right-wing congressmen supporting Mack’s most recent attempt. Seeing as most have never shown any interest in Venezuela, it is clear that extremists within the Republican caucus have made my country a political priority.
If Venezuela does indeed end up on the terrorism list, it would amount to the imposition of a Cuba-like embargo on the country. Commerce and oil would be disrupted, and even cursory financial and economic transactions would be made prohibitively expensive. It would also put the large U.S.-Venezuelan commercial relationship — the countries’ trade with one another from January through September of this year totaled nearly $31 billion — in jeopardy. And it would serve as more evidence that some policymakers in Washington use the “terrorist” label as a cudgel against their political foes. It should come as no surprise that a 2008 report prepared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee adamantly warned against manipulating the terrorism list in that way, stating that “policymakers must be wary of the implications of poorly thought-out sanctions which might isolate the United States.”
Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are not alone in advocating for a Cold War-era stance toward Latin America. In fact, they’re being educated and enabled by a chorus of similarly hard-line former Bush administration officials.
Chief among them are Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, both of whom served as assistant secretaries of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under Bush. Reich has a long track record of using the battle over Cuba to determine U.S. policy toward the entire region, while Noriega honed his skills as a foreign-policy aide to late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and currently works at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.
Most recently — on this very website — Noriega has been claiming that Venezuela is working with Iran on a nuclear-weapons program, a claim so outlandish that the only prominent public figures who repeated it were John Bolton (another hard-line Bush administration official) in an op-ed in theLos Angeles Timesand Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post‘s editorial pages and a crusader against anything that has to do with Chávez. (Recently released cables from U.S. embassies in Latin America admit that these charges are “likely baseless,” as a Post article put it.) In a recent op-ed, Noriega also called Chávez the “deadly kingpin of a criminal regime.”
It might be easy to call Noriega and Reich out-of-touch extremists, but their views now hold greater sway on Capitol Hill and at many Washington think tanks. For example, a Nov. 17 conference in Washington, organized by the Interamerican Institute for Democracy and called “Danger in the Andes,” was a forum for outlandish views to be exchanged by ostensibly serious policy analysts. The guests of honor at the conference? Ros-Lehtinen and Mack, of course.
Now that the Republicans are no longer marginalized in Congress, dogma threatens to totally trump the greater U.S. national interest. That would be terrible for Americans, and their neighbors to the south. The remaining pragmatists in Washington should do everything in their power to prevent it.
Bernardo Álvarez Herrera is Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States.