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Relations With Latin America Go South

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Mike Baker (FOX)

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming… And, oh, don’t forget the Chinese…

This week the PWB’s mobile command center has made a stop in Mexico City in my continuing effort to rack up more air miles than Father Jonathan. Frankly the contest is a bit stilted given the efficiency of the Vatican’s travel department, not to mention the deep discounts the airlines hand out when you tell them that God wants you in Paris by 0900 on Tuesday without fail, preferably in an aisle seat.

Perhaps I should first point out that Mexico is a sovereign nation located just south of the United States. I mention this because, aside from the immigration issue, you’d be hard pressed to find many folks in the U.S. talking, worrying or otherwise pondering the state of Mexico. OK, let’s be more generous … you’d be hard pressed to find anyone spending much time thinking about Latin America in general.

Granted, Iraq, the overall war on terror, relations with the Middle East and recent efforts to find a plunger big enough to unclog America’s economic crapper have left little time for us to focus on all our neighbors to the south. But this lack of focus on Latin America isn’t a new phenomenon. While 9/11 did tighten the blinders, our collective lack of interest in the region arguably spans a couple of decades.

A failure to allocate significant resources and attention to our relationships with the countries of Latin America has now left us with a big, nasty looking bite mark on our collective American butt. While it’s true that the U.S. government over recent years has continued to spend money on the never-ending war on drugs and emitted massive quantities of hot air on the immigration situation, what’s been missing is the labor-intensive, continuous development and maintenance work needed to ensure long-lasting, meaningful friendships and alliances.

And just like any high school kid will tell you, ignoring friendships almost always leads to shifting alliances. During the past many years, as we repeatedly forgot to invite our Latin American neighbors for parties and sleepovers, they got tired of being ignored and decided “OMG, the U.S. is like, so lame, and like, I really need new friends.” Standing across the playground, super keen to be BFFs with the Latin crowd, stood the Russians and the Chinese. Anybody who’s ever watched 90210 (the OC for you kids under 30) will see where this is going.

By the way, and not to get off track, but has anyone suggested to Hank Paulson that we identify a new source of revenue to help fund the $700 billion rescue plan for idiots that’s currently being kicked around on Capitol Hill by people who wouldn’t recognize a CDO if it crawled into bed with them and spooned? My vote is we legalize drugs, tax the crap out of it and use the additional revenue to keep people in their houses and bankers in their bonuses.

OK, back to our story. A lack of serious diplomatic attention and hard work in the region has contributed mightily to a Latin America that over the past 10 years has drifted to the left and now is engaging the Russians and the Chinese in a way not seen since the Cold War.

The realignment began in earnest with everybody’s favorite socialist wingnut, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Determined to create a socialist utopia throughout Latin America, Chavez has been actively courting regional leaders, passing out petro dollars and hanging out with Sean Penn. So far, it seems to be working.

While the U.S. hung out elsewhere, other countries in Latin America fell like, uh… dominoes, under the magical spell of socialism and all that it promises. By the way, I can obviously not take credit for the domino theory … those of you old enough will recall that the term was coined during the last Cold War before socialist and communist countries collapsed under the weight of their own mediocrity. I wanted to point that out lest today’s youth blame a pizza chain for the fall of democracy.

Once others in the region saw how adopting socialism can increase your attractiveness to celebrities like Penn and Harry Belafonte, naturally they also wanted in on the action. Before you could say “nationalization,” we had left-leaning leaders in Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Guatemala, Ecuador, Argentina and, proving that everything old is new again, Nicaragua. The latest country to join the group hug is Paraguay.

After the election of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay last month, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa announced “The triumph of comrade Fernando Lugo is yet another stone in the foundation of this new Latin America that is just, sovereign, independent and, why not, socialist.” He said this as Argentina’s recently installed leftist President Cristina Fernandez beamed approvingly.

Now, mind you, just as there are variations in the liberals who currently command the U.S. Congress, not every Latin leftist leader is in lockstep with Chavez. But there is no mistaking the direction of the tilt over the past decade, and, if we’re not careful, we’re going to find ourselves outmaneuvered and lonely in our own backyard.

According to Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, “Paraguay’s election is just further evidence that Latin America’s political geography has changed in basic ways.”

For those of you not familiar with think-tank talk, “basic ways” is code for “they don’t like us anymore and they think Russia’s really hot.”

As an example, this week one of the big news stories here in Mexico is that a squadron from the Russian Navy’s North Sea Fleet set sail for Venezuela on Monday to take part in joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan Navy. The flotilla includes the nuke-powered guided missile carrier Peter the Great and the submarine destroyer Admiral Chabanenko the Average.

This is hot on the heels of recent visits to the region by senior Russian officials, not to mention a recent visit to Venezuela by two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers, also in town for some joint maneuvers. Joint maneuvers are to alliances what play dates are to toddlers… lots of fun, some yummy snacks and then both sides go home for a nap.

In case the abundance of leftist leaders in the region, the increase in visits by Russians and the increasing economic interest and relationships being built by the Chinese government aren’t sufficient clues, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin put it in laymen’s terms the other day. Following a visit to Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, Sechin said that “… it would be wrong to talk about one nation having exclusive rights to this zone.”

Chavez, never one to slovenly chase after the affections of leading communist figures such as Fidel Castro or Vladimir Putin, echoed Sechin’s comments, adding that “… not only Venezuela, but all of Latin America needs friends like Russia.” What a load of crap. He’s heading over to Moscow soon for yet another visit, during which he and newly installed President Dmitri Medvedev, bearing an odd resemblance to Charlie McCarthy, will discuss the exchange of friendship rings while sitting naked in a tub full of light sweet crude.

So here comes the Russian fleet. Behind the scenes the Chinese authorities are pushing for expanded trade deals. In the region the remaining right-leaning countries find themselves outnumbered and too often ignored by the U.S.

It’s not too late to address the situation, but it will take a major shift in our foreign policy efforts. Given everything else on our plate right now, the best we might be able to muster in the short term is to pay a little more attention. That wouldn’t be bad for a start.

At the end of the day, it’s like any long-distance friendship: It takes work to ensure the bonds remain strong. Otherwise you’re in danger of drifting apart and finding yourself replaced by somebody new.

Till next week, stay safe.


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