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 Chávez 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 countrys borders.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to answer questions about the presidents remarks. The presidents campaign spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said Romney is only playing into the hands of Chávez and his outdated rhetoric by giving him any attention.
Because of President Obamas leadership, our position in the Americas is much stronger today than before he took office, LaBolt said. At the same time, Hugo Chávez has become increasingly marginalized and his influence has waned. Its baffling that Mitt Romney is so scared of a leader like Chávez whose power is fading, while Romney continues to remain silent about how to confront al-Qaeda 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 its up to the president to judge in an election year whether its politically smart to talk about Chávez in a way that draws such heated Republican response in South Florida especially considering how valuable the swing states votes are to Obamas prospects.
But Shifter also said that the Obama administration has been careful not to provoke Chávez in any way the Venezuelan president could use to his advantage, particularly as Chávez goes to the polls himself Oct. 7. During the Bush administration, Shifter said, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld escalated tensions by likening Chávez to Hitler.
He gets sympathy and support for that because its 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 hasnt always been so critical of Chávez. In 2005, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was grateful that Chávezs 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.