The Venezuelan leader has manipulated past elections, and will manipulate future ones. He is increasingly deepening his Bolivarian revolution by weakening and subverting Venezuela’s democratic institutions. At best, Venezuela’s weapons purchases from Russia are leading to a major arms race in the region, with Colombia acquiring U.S. weapons and Brazil turning to France. Other countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, are also spending their much-needed resources in the acquisition of weapons. A coalition of Venezuela and its allies, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, may develop into a club of well-armed, anti-American regimes exercising influence in the region by intimidating its neighbors.
Over the years, U.S. policy has either ignored or mildly chastised Chávez for his extremism. That policy is no longer viable or prudent. The United States needs to develop policies that undermine the Chávez regime, organize the opposition and accelerate the end of his rule. Covert operations to strengthen opposition groups and civil society need to be implemented. Vigilance and denunciation of Venezuelan-Iranian activities and Chávez’s meddling in Colombia and elsewhere are critical to gain international support for U.S. policies.
While regime change in Venezuela may be a difficult policy objective, U.S. policymakers need to understand that the long-term consolidation of Chavista power may present a greater threat than the Castro regime posed in the 1960s. Unlike Cuba, Chávez has significant oil wealth and Venezuela is a large country that borders on several South American neighbors.
Chávez’s alliances with Iran, Syria and other anti-American countries, and his support for terrorist groups, are as formidable a challenge as the old Cuba-Soviet alliance. The United States can also weaken Chávez’s power, and that of Russia, Iran and other countries, by a systematic policy that lowers the world price of petroleum.
A comprehensive, alert policy is required to deal with the Venezuela-Iran threat. Chávez is, after all, Fidel Castro’s disciple and heir in the region. The lessons of the Missile Crisis of 1962 should increase our uneasiness about Chávez’s adventurism and Iranian motivations in Latin America.
Jaime Suchlicki is director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is author of “Cuba: From Columbus to Castro.”