By declaring in Miami that Hugo Chávez “has not had a serious national security impact on us,” President Obama handed his GOP critics an early gift. It was easy for Republicans to challenge Obama’s remark. They could point to Venezuela’s alliance with Iran, or its Russian-financed military buildup (which threatens to unleash a regional arms race), or its support for the Colombian FARC terrorists, or its ties to Hezbollah, or its connections to international drug trafficking, or its fuel shipments to the murderous regime in Syria, or its repeated attempts to undermine Latin American democracies.

But the larger significance of Obama’s comment goes beyond Venezuela. To put it bluntly, Obama just doesn’t understand Latin America.

Consider: It took the president less than three months to offer an olive branch to the Castro brothers, but it took him more than 33 months to submit the Colombia and Panama free-trade deals for congressional approval. Talk about misplaced priorities. Obama has spent considerable diplomatic energy trying to improve relations with the autocratic allies of Hugo Chávez. Meanwhile, he has neglected genuine democratic allies of the United States.

At a moment when Latin America’s economic future looks brighter than ever, the United States should be aggressively expanding its trade ties to the region. At a moment when certain formerly democratic countries are being transformed into quasi-dictatorships (namely, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador), the United States should be promoting major reforms at the Organization of American States (OAS), the Western Hemisphere’s premier multilateral forum, which has been weakened by poor leadership and various structural flaws.

Instead, Washington’s hemispheric trade agenda remains frozen, and the Obama administration has failed to make any serious effort at overhauling the OAS. As for its attempted rapprochement with the likes of Cuba and Ecuador, the results were sadly predictable.

Havana responded to the easing of U.S. sanctions by locking up USAID contractor Alan Gross and cracking down on human-rights activists across the island. Ecuador responded to U.S. outreach by expelling the American envoy from Quito. (This was after WikiLeaks released diplomatic cables in which Ambassador Heather Hodges expressed concerns over Ecuadorean police corruption.) In Bolivia, Chávez protégé Evo Morales kicked out the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) four years ago, and DEA agents still haven’t been allowed to return. In Argentina, a left-wing government that was hostile to the Bush administration has been even more hostile to the Obama administration.

The problem is not that Obama failed to boost relations with these countries. (It was inevitable that he — or any president — would have failed, given the ideological animosity of the Chávez gang.) The problem is that his efforts sent a confusing and disturbing signal about U.S. priorities in Latin America: Mending ties with anti-U.S. autocracies was apparently more important than strengthening partnerships with pro-U.S. democracies.