WASHINGTON — Republicans, led by Mitt Romney and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, pounced on President Barack Obama on Wednesday after he told a Miami TV anchor that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez does not pose a "serious" national security threat to the United States.
Republicans wasted no time in firing up a key South Florida constituency coveted by Romney and Obama: Cuban-American voters who hate Chavez for his close ties to the Castro regime in Cuba.
"President Obama hasn't been paying attention if he thinks that Hugo Chavez, with buddies like the regimes in Cuba, Iran, and Syria, drug cartels, arms traffickers, and extremist groups, is not a threat to the United States," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs committee and co-chair of Romney's National Hispanic Steering Committee. "I am deeply disappointed that this administration continues to bury its head in the sand about threats to U.S. security, our interests, and our allies."
Rubio said Obama "has been living under a rock" when it comes to Chavez, and said the president "continues to display an alarmingly naive understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face in the western hemisphere."
Other Cuban-American lawmakers issued statements in the same critical vein, and Senate candidate Connie Mack, a Republican congressman, tied his opponent Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to the president's remarks.
Experts in the region, though, called Obama's comments reasonable. Chavez is "certifiable," with a tremendous ego fueled by the power that comes from sitting on vast oil reserves - but he's not as dangerous as the leaders of other less friendly regimes, said Riordan Roett, the director of Latin American Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies at The John Hopkins University.
The Republican criticism is "just pure electoral politics," Roett said.
"He poses no security threat to the United States or anyone else," Roett said. "Hugo Chavez is not going to attack us, he's not going to occupy our embassy, he's not going to bomb U.S. planes arriving in Caracas at Maiquetia Airport. He is a loudmouth who enjoys listening to himself, and has built up on the basis of oil revenue, a very, very populist, dependent regime that can't deliver on basic services, on goods and commodities to his own people."
Here's what Obama told Oscar Haza, a Spanish-language broadcast journalist and anchor in an interview with Obama that aired Tuesday night on A Mano Limpia (which roughly translates to "The Gloves Are Off"), Haza's nightly show on WJAN-Channel 41:
"We're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe," Obama said. "But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us. We have to be vigilant. My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs, and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don't always see."
Romney called Obama's comment "stunning and shocking" and said in statement it's a sign of "a pattern of weakness" in the president's foreign policy.
"It is disturbing to see him downplaying the threat posed to U.S. interests by a regime that openly wishes us ill," Romney said. "Hugo Chavez has provided safe haven to drug kingpins, encouraged regional terrorist organizations that threaten our allies like Colombia, has strengthened military ties with Iran and helped it evade sanctions, and has allowed a Hezbollah presence within his country's borders."
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to answer questions about the president's remarks. The president's campaign spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said Romney is only "playing into the hands of Chavez" and his "outdated rhetoric" by giving him any attention.
"Because of President Obama's leadership, our position in the Americas is much stronger today than before he took office," LaBolt said. "At the same time, Hugo Chavez has become increasingly marginalized and his influence has waned. It's baffling that Mitt Romney is so scared of a leader like Chavez whose power is fading, while Romney continues to remain silent about how to confront al-Qaida or how to bring our troops home from Afghanistan."
Michael Shifter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue, cautioned that it's up to the president to judge in an election year whether it's politically smart to talk about Chavez in a way that draws such heated Republican response in South Florida - especially considering how valuable the swing state's votes are to Obama's prospects.
But Shifter also said that the Obama administration has been careful not to provoke Chavez in any way the Venezuelan president could use to his advantage, particularly as Chavez goes to the polls himself Oct. 7. During the Bush administration, Shifter said, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld escalated tensions by likening Chavez to Hitler.
"He gets sympathy and support for that because it's seen as the U.S. demonizing him," Shifter said. "He plays the victim. I think that Obama been careful not to get into that."
And Romney hasn't always been so critical of Chavez. In 2005, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was grateful that Chavez's government sent discounted heating oil to Massachusetts in a deal brokered by then-U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. Venezuela later also provided discounted heating oil to remote Alaskan villages and to poor areas of New York City.