Obama's Latin American Policy Is Dangerously Out of Touch

As Congress, Republican presidential candidates, and much of the U.S., South American, and European media are sounding the alarm on suspicious activities by Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America, the State Department is hitting the snooze button.

State also has turned a blind eye to abuses of the administration’s liberalized rules for traveling to Cuba, causing Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to hold up the nominations of two members of President Obama’s Latin America team.

Congress is right to scrutinize policies and policy makers that fail to advance our values or protect our security.

Here’s fresh evidence of the problem at Foggy Bottom. A December 8 Univision documentary on “The Iranian Threat in Latin America” caught Venezuelan “diplomat” Livia Acosta on hidden camera instructing purported Mexican hackers to crack U.S. national security websites on behalf of anti-U.S. dictator Hugo Chávez. Accusers also have released a document that appears to identify Acosta, now posted in Chávez’s consulate in Miami, as an undeclared (read illegal) agent of Venezuela’s intelligence service.

Bipartisan congressional leaders immediately called for an investigation into the Acosta scandal and the broader threat of Iran’s network in the Americas. Rather than echoing these concerns, last week, two senior U.S. diplomats held a cordial meeting with Venezuela’s senior representative in Washington, Angelo Rivero, to reassure him that the State Department hopes to improve bilateral cooperation despite the Acosta affair.

Far from expelling Acosta or even raising the serious accusations against her, a senior American diplomat advised Rivero to increase security to protect Acosta from U.S. protestors in Miami and warned that the U.S. Congress or other U.S. agencies might continue to investigate the case.

This recent episode, revealed to me by sources within the Chávez regime, is one of many examples of a U.S. Latin America policy that is dangerously out of touch with the grave and growing threats in our own neighborhood. Here are a few others.

Despite documentary evidence that Iran has been exploring for uranium in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia for many years and is conducting mining in these countries today, U.S. officials are unable to confirm whether Teheran is illegally obtaining this critical ingredient to fuel its rogue nuclear program right here in this hemisphere.

On two occasions in recent months, U.S. diplomats have testified before Congress that a Caracas-Damascus-Teheran flight is no longer flying, in spite of recent eyewitness accounts to the contrary. Billions of Iranian funds being laundered through Venezuelan banks have escaped U.S. scrutiny. U.S. law enforcement authorities – particularly the Drug Enforcement Agency – seeking to sanction Venezuelan state-run enterprises that abet Iran, Hezbollah, and narcotraffickers must overcome State Department resistance at every turn.

Rather than ask the intelligence community to increase its capabilities, these diplomats would rather not know what Chávez is up to sothey do not have to confront the problem. When it comes to Chávez’s dangerous conspiracy with Iran, Cuba, Russia, and China, ignorance is indefensible.

This disorientation is not limited to Venezuela. Soon after taking power, the Obama administration joined a stampede orchestrated by Chávez to condemn the June 2009 ouster of his acolyte in Honduras, who had forfeited his office by plotting to violate a constitutional ban on re-election.

In contrast, U.S. diplomats have effectively ignored the illegal maneuvers and outright electoral fraud that Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega has used to secure another term in office just last month. SenatorRobert Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee’s panel on Latin America, said this month, “It is time for the United States … to pay attention to what is occurring in Nicaragua and take action to ensure that the democratic values in the region aren’t further eroded.” Instead, U.S. diplomats in Managua have been instructed by Washington not to confront Ortega.

Coddling hostile regimes may be the lone organizing principle of U.S. Latin America policy today. Ecuador’s mercurial president, Rafael Correa, expelled U.S. envoy Heather Hodges in April after a Wikileaked telegram from the U.S. embassy in Quito referred in passing to official corruption. In September, for no particular reason, the White House announced the appointment of Adam Namm to replace Hodges; Namm’s is one of the nominations frozen by Rubio.

In November, when Bolivia’s anti-U.S. leader Evo Morales was grappling with an internal uprising, the State Department threw him a political lifeline by signing a compact to restore bilateral ties. Never mind that Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador and the DEA for no reason, refuses U.S. anti-drug aid, forbids U.S. democracy support, and levels unfounded accusations against the United States on a weekly basis.

The foregoing examples send an unmistakable signal that there is no cost for being an avowed enemy of the United States and little benefit for being a friend. Congress is right in thinking we can do better than this and in insisting that we do.

Roger F. Noriega was Ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001-03 and Assistant Secretary of State from 2003-05. He is a visiting fellow at the American EnterpriseInstitute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC, which represents U.S. and foreign clients, and he contributes to www.interamericansecuritywatch.com.