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Years of Neglect Catch Up in Latin America
The news that both Bolivia and Venezuela, whose presidents are staunch allies and friends, have chosen to expel the respective U.S. ambassadors is the most visible evidence of the frayed relations the United States now has with much of Latin America.

As my colleague Andrew Cochran wrote the United States then immediately took the step of designating the three most visible Venezuelan officials whose ties to the FARC were clearly established.

What is amazing is that, until this blow-up, U.S. officials in different departments of the government, have been minimizing the well-documented alliance, as well as other issues discussed below, that have made Latin America a far different place than it was five years ago.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Colombia policy, there has been virtually no policy toward Latin America, and the festering issues there have been left to fester.

As a friend said after recently sitting through a 50-minute briefing by a senior government official on security issues facing Latin America without once mentioning Venezuela, Iran or Russia, the presentation was a true "tour de force."

This was because the official managed to never mention any of the burning issues, instead painting a relatively upbeat picture of the regions as a free trade, democratic region in the full flower of health.

Much of the evidence against the three designated Venezuelans: Hugo Armando Carvajal (head of military intelligence); Henry de Jesus Rangel (director of intelligence); and Ramon Emilio Rodriguez Chacin (former minister of defense and interior) comes from the computer of Raul Reyes, the FARC's deputy commander killed in Ecuador by Colombian forces on March 1.

The Reyes documents (which I have analyzed in this NEFA Foundation paper clearly outline the role of the three in protecting the FARC, meeting regularly with FARC leadership and discussing weapons shipments with the rebels.

The FARC moves its some 250 kilos of cocaine, largely Europe-bound, through Venezuela, and internal FARC documents show that the shipments are often escorted by Venezuelan military or intelligence officials to the ports from which they are embarked, in order to insure the drugs' safe transit.

But there is a much more worrisome backdrop to the events that are shaking Bolivia, and being exploited by Chavez. That is the growing presence of a state sponsor of radical Islamist terror (Iran) and a state (Russia) that is increasingly willing to sell weapons indiscriminately to both Iran and its allies in Latin America. Add this to the mix of the FARC and Venezuelan state sponsorship for the organization and it is a highly-combustible mix.

This can be documented in the presence, for the first time ever, of long-range Russian bombers in Venezuela and the invitation (already accepted) for the Russian fleet to visit Venezuela. Chavez is exulting the "Yankee hegemony" is finished.

It can also be seen, as Jeff Stein writes in CQ in Daniel Ortega's bid for Russian military aid and his welcoming of the Iranians. Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, just visited Tehran.

All this may mean that Chavez is right, but the price will be high. Some of my friends argue that Latin American governments have the right to build alliances wherever they choose, for whatever reasons they want, and the U.S. cannot and should not dictate that. They are right.

But does anyone really believe that replacing U.S. influence with that of radical ayatollahs is a winning proposition for the countries involved? Already there is anger boiling over (and Ortega has had to cancel several his attendance at several summit meeting in Central America because feelings run so high) that Chavez and Ortega have ceded to Iranian officials' demands that all women leave the buildings the Iranian officials visit.

A bit of a slap in the face to the women, by two leaders who claim the progressive mantle in the region. That is but one small example of the price that will be extracted for the alliance in ways these same friends would never tolerate if it were the U.S. imposing such conditions.

And the Russians? Yes, it is true the U.S. has a long history of arming thugs and murderers in Latin America. But few could deny that there has been a huge change in U.S. policies over the past 15 years, and some new, and I would argue far better, criteria have been developed over how and who weapons are sold to and which militaries receive significant aid.

Can one really believe that allying with Russia, who will (and has) sold weapons to all sides of many conflicts in Africa and elsewhere, will be a better bargain for the region?

So, years of benign and negligent optimism in Latin America is blowing up in our faces. Little has been done to work with other Latin nations (principally Brazil and Chile, whose leaders have the credentials to take on Chavez for the mantle of progressive leadership) on defang the Iran-Chavez axis or offer a significant alternative. The entire hemisphere will pay a price.

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