U.S. officials have long pooh-poohed claims that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a threat to U.S. national security. But now that Chavez openly says that he is working with Iran in a joint nuclear program, Venezuela watchers are wondering whether the U.S. perception is changing.
I asked about the Venezuela-Iran nuclear ties in a rare interview with Dan Restrepo, senior White House National Security Council adviser on Latin American affairs.
Restrepo was in Miami last week to address the Americas Conference organized by The Miami Herald, the World Bank and Florida International University.
Before bringing up the Iran-Venezuela nuclear cooperation issue and the crisis in Honduras, I asked him whether the Obama administration shares the traditional U.S. perception that Chavez is more of a nuisance than a national security threat.
“Yes,” Restrepo said. “The president has said so. He does not see Venezuela as a challenge to U.S. national security. There is no Cold War nor Hot War. Those things belong to the past. We have to look at the present and see how we can work constructively with those countries that are interested in working with us. It may be that not all of them want to do so, but the vast majority of the people and countries in Latin America are interested in doing so.”
Chavez said during a recent visit to Iran — his eighth since taking office — that he is discussing with Iran the creation of a “nuclear village” in Venezuela, which he claimed will be for peaceful purposes. New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau claimed days later that Iran may use Venezuela for “building and storing” weapons of mass destruction.
What do you think about the Iran-Venezuela nuclear cooperation? I asked Restrepo.
“Look, we hope that all countries in the Americas respect international rules, and their international responsibilities regarding nuclear energy,” Restrepo said.
Is there a danger that Latin America will become a nuclear weapons area? I asked. Brazilian Vice President Jose Alencar recently said that Brazil, as an emerging power, should have the right to have nuclear weapons. Under current treaties, Latin America is a nuclear weapons-free zone.
Restrepo replied: “I think it was a Brazilian official who said that, and that others said other things. And the Brazilian constitution prohibits that. But, again, our answer is the same: We think that all countries in the world have to comply with their responsibilities under the existing legal frameworks on nuclear issues.”
Changing subjects, I asked Restrepo whether the Obama administration considers the June 28 ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya a coup. Many Republicans in Congress argue that Zelaya was deposed based on a Honduran Supreme Court warrant for his arrest and that his ouster was a legal action.
“The president of the United States has been very clear about this: It was a coup. And as (Costa Rica) President Oscar Arias said, a coup is a coup, no matter what else you want to call it. ... What we have to do is continue to work to overcome this moment recognizing that there were actions that caused the June 28 events, and that these problems must be solved as well,” he said.
My opinion: The Obama administration is being consistent with its campaign pledge to try to avoid picking fights with Chavez. As a senior Obama administration official once told me, “Chavez’s life is more complicated when we don’t act as the traditional gringo.”
And Obama hopes that by not openly confronting Chavez, the United States will make it easier for middle-of-the-road Latin American countries to support U.S. positions in the future.
I don’t have a problem with Obama’s confidence-building measures in the region. They are needed after the Bush administration’s go-it-alone policies in Iraq and other countries, which led to widespread anti-Americanism.
But very soon, if Venezuela and its allies continue crippling democratic freedoms — as Chavez has done by closing major television and radio networks and stripping the opposition mayor of Caracas of his powers — Obama should use his political capital to demand the collective defense of democracy beyond Honduras. Building trust is great, as long as you don’t forget what you are building it for.