Commentary: GOP swings right on Latin America

The Miami HeraldSeptember 4, 2012 

OPPENHEIMER ANDRES MCT

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

AL DIAZ — MCT/Miami Herald

The Republican platform approved by the party’s convention last week — a blueprint of what a Romney administration would do if it is elected — makes no bones about its hard-line policy toward Latin America. Its section on the region starts out by saying that “We will resist foreign influence in our hemisphere,” and calls Venezuela a “narco terrorist” state.

Much in line with the document’s general foreign policy plank — whose first line reads, “We are the party of peace through strength” — the new Republican platform’s Latin America section is also a sharp turn to the right from the same section in the party’s 2008 platform. That document started with the words, “Faith and family, culture and commerce, are enduring bonds among all the peoples of the Americas.”

Before we get into what I think of the newly released 2012 Republican platform’s section on the region, let’s take a closer look at what it says.

“The current administration has turned its back on Latin America, with predictable results. Rather than supporting our democratic allies in the region, the president has prioritized engagement with our enemies in the region,” the new Republican document says.

“Venezuela represents an increasing threat to U.S. security, a threat which has grown much worse on the current president’s watch. In the last three years, Venezuela has become a narco-terrorist state, turning it into an Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere,” it says.

“The current regime issues Venezuelan passports or visas to thousands of Middle Eastern terrorists offering safe haven to Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters and fundraisers,” it adds.

The document devotes several paragraphs to Cuba, stating that “We reject any dynastic succession of power within the Castro family and affirm the principles codified in U.S. law as conditions for the lifting of trade, travel, and financial sanctions: the legalization of political parties, an independent media, and free and fair internationally supervised elections.”

The document also says that “the war on drugs and the war on terror have become a single enterprise,” and that “we salute our allies in this fight, especially the people of Colombia and Mexico.” Interestingly, the Latin America section of the platform makes no reference to Brazil, the region’s biggest country — and largest economy.

In other sections, the Republican platform takes an ultra-hardline position on illegal immigration, calling for denying federal funds for universities that give in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, and opposing any form of “amnesty” to people without valid immigration papers.

President Barack Obama supporters deny that he has ignored Latin America, stating that he has made five visits to the region, as many as any U.S. president since Ronald Reagan. And they reject the Republican claims that Washington has weakened its military support against terrorism and drug trafficking in the region, stating that Obama increased U.S. military cooperation with Mexico by $1 billion, and that he has doubled U.S. annual security assistance to Central American countries.

According to Obama supporters, the GOP platform’s Latin America section is a throwback to the first George W. Bush term, when the White House used tough-sounding rhetoric against radical leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his disciples in the region. That approach failed, because it played into Chávez’s hands and helped him claim that he was a victim of “U.S. aggression,” they say.

Regarding assertions that Venezuela is a national security threat because it allegedly has become an “Iranian outpost” and harbors “thousands of Middle Eastern terrorists,” people close to the Obama foreign policy team say there is no evidence for such claims.

“Iran is President Obama’s top national security priority,” says Dan Restrepo, who until recently was Obama’s top White House adviser on Latin America. “But if the Republicans have evidence that there are thousands of Middle Eastern terrorists in Venezuela, they should provide it to the president, and to the public.”

My opinion: The Republicans are right in that Obama has neglected Latin America. He has (and, by the way, so did former President Bush after 9/11). But critics are right that tough-sounding rhetoric plays right into the hands of Chávez and his disciples in the region. They are constantly insulting Washington in hopes of getting the U.S. president to say something that would justify their claim that the “U.S. empire” is about to invade their countries at any moment, and who use that fantasy as an excuse to grab absolute powers. If Romney takes that line, he may — ironically — strengthen them.

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