Good Neighbor Policies and the U.S. Presidential Election

Barring a major international crisis, the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential election will have very little to do with foreign policy. It certainly won’t have much to do with U.S. policy toward Latin America, a region that both President Obama and Governor Romney have largely ignored in their campaign speeches.

All of this is understandable, but also rather unfortunate. Leave aside the obvious foreign-policy challenges in the Middle East and Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, China, and so forth): The next administration will surely have to make important decisions about our own hemisphere.

For example, Washington must decide whether  its current approach to Mexico’s drug war is working. It must decide how aggressively to seek free-trade agreements with countries such as Brazil and Uruguay. It must decide whether to maintain the 50-year-old embargo against Cuba. It must decide how to punish the Venezuelan regime for its ongoing violation of global sanctions against Iran, and how to punish specific Venezuelan officials for their collaboration with the Colombian FARC and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

For that matter, even if we ignored Hugo Chávez’s alliance with Iran, his support for narco-terrorists, his attempts to subvert democracy across Latin America, and his declared hostility toward the United States, Venezuela would still be a serious concern for U.S. policymakers. Indeed, the militarization of Venezuelan society has fostered the conditions for any number of violent scenarios, including a pro-Chávez coup, a Tiananmen-style bloodbath in the streets, and perhaps even a full-blown civil war. As I wrote in this space a few months ago, Venezuela has become a powder-keg that could easily explode if Chávez steals Venezuela’s October 7th presidential election, or if he loses the election but refuses to leave office, or if he dies of cancer and is replaced by a military junta.

It would be bad enough if Chávez had simply created a military regime (which he effectively has). But the Venezuelan strongman has also created his own version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Known as the Bolivarian militia, this paramilitary force reports directly to Chávez and is tasked with defending his revolution. It is unclear just how many fighters belong to the militia -- which enjoys access to a vast arsenal of Russian weaponry -- but a prominent Venezuelan opposition figure, lawmaker María Corina Machado, recently told the newspaper El Universal that she has obtained a document indicating that the government’s goal is to have a million militia members by 2013.

Caracas is already among the most murderous cities in the world, and Venezuela's national homicide rate is by far the highest in South America. The independent Venezuelan Observatory of Violence reports that there were more than 19,300 murders in 2011, compared with fewer than 6,000 in 1999, the year Chávez took power. The country has become a magnet for all sorts of drug traffickers, crime networks, and terrorist groups (not only the FARC and Hezbollah, but also the Spanish ETA). Several prominent Venezuelan generals have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for their ties to the FARC, and the imprisoned drug lord Walid Makled has said that dozens of Venezuelan military and government officials played a role in his criminal enterprise.