Herds of horses have leaders. They establish dominance by fighting all comers and by protecting the lesser horses within the herd. Eventually, fighting ceases to be necessary. A hard stare, the baring of teeth or even a kicking gesture become sufficient. Only when the dominant horse weakens or a new horse is introduced into the herd and tries to assert dominance is actual combat necessary. The winner becomes and remains the new leader until another horse asserts and establishes dominance. Relations among nations are much the same.
We now pay little attention to Latin America, but once upon a time the United States projected sufficient power to protect her substantial interests there. That time has passed and setting back the clock would be, at best, very difficult.
An alliance between Venezuela and Iran is dangerous, as I wrote here in September of 2009. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will arrive in Venezuela on January 8th and will also visit Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.
Ahmadinejad will meet fellow US foe and firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on a four-nation trip that coincides with rising international concern over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
. . . .
All four Latin American countries have frosty ties with the United States and their leaders have in the past four years made numerous visits to Tehran to build up diplomatic and business links while relations with Washington have worsened.
While various media reports suggest disparagingly that the visit is a desperate attempt to find new friends, those whom he will visit are already old and close friends, as noted here by Claudia Rosett. According to Ahmadinejad’s international affairs director, Mohammad Reza Forqani,
the visit to “what used to be called the backyard of America shows the dynamism of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s diplomacy in the world arena.”
The trip also “invalidates the claims of the enemies,” Forqani was quoted as saying by Iranian state media on Tuesday, in a clear jab at Washington.
The Iranian leader will talk with Latin American leaders about “bilateral ties and regional and international issues,” according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.
Focus briefly on Venezuela, a country which has changed dramatically for the worse since my wife and I were last there in 2001: then, it was a relatively prosperous, relatively free and generally pleasant place. Under el Presidente Chávez, who came to power in 1999, the place has become a shambles. Previously self-sufficient for food, “Bolivarian Socialist reforms” have given many large and productive landholdings to members of Chávez’ family, to other Chavistas and more recently to Russian companies. In consequence of these reforms, food shortages have become endemic and much food has to be imported; due to corruption and inefficiency, much of it has rotted before being distributed. Due to foreign currency restrictions and price controls many other things, including raw materials needed to manufacture finished products, have also become too expensive to produce, impossible to sell at a profit and accordingly scarce.
A few months ago Rangel Silva, then a general in the Venezuelan army, said that the army would refuse to recognize any new president elected in opposition to el Presidente Chávez. On January 6th, el Presidente Chávez elevated him to Minister of Defense. In that capacity, he
will be supervising the October elections which are monitored by the army (a defense minster usually lasts between 1 to two years in office, traditionally).
Second, Rangel Silva has been accused of being associated with diverse drug trafficking rings, even by the US, something that already EFE and ABC remind folks in Spain.
Here’s how Daniel Duquenal (a pseudonym), my favorite English language blogger still writing from Venezuela, analyzes this:
Chavez is weak and needs to project force and determination. Thus he names unpalatable people in high offices, people who in an after Chavez would have a lot to lose and thus have today a lot to gain, or to preserve as the case may be, in supporting Chavez no matter what.
. . . .
The target is the military who may think that Chavez time may have run out, those bolibourgeois oligarchs who think that maybe financing the opposition campaigns may help them retain their newly acquired fortunes.
According to la Gringa’s Blogicito, a great source of information about Honduras, Chávez — who once tried with assistance from the Obama Administration to help his acolyte Mel Zelaya contravene the Honduran Constitution and obtain a second term in office — is now getting cozy with
Pepe Lobo, the current Honduran President. What’s in it for President Lobo? He needs funds from Chávez’ Petrocaribe; those funds are essentially non-accountable and don’t have to be returned. Again, according to la Gringa,
As Proceso Digital so delicately put it, “These funds, since they are placed in trust, beyond the strict budgetary control, are coveted by rulers not inclined to fiscal rigor.” Evidence of the lack of transparency is the fact that though these funds were received in 2008-2009, the public was just informed for the first time on January 5, 2012, how much money was available from Petrocaribe (originally US $183 million and now zero), when it was spent (the last of it 8 months ago), where it went, and what it was actually spent on (we still don’t know).
What’s in it for Chávez? Among some things we probably don’t know about yet,
Chávez is getting a direct foothold in Honduras territory, specifically the Bajo Aguán, noted for militant campesino groups and Venezuelan narco plane landings [article in English], a place ripe for Chávez propagandizing.
The Bajo Aguán is in Northern Honduras. Honduras’ southern border is with Nicaragua, controlled by el Presidente Daniel Ortega whom Chávez assisted in contravening the Nicaraguan Constitution to retain his presidency for another term in office. Plotting his return to Honduras, ex-President Zelaya lived in Nicaragua for several months before sneaking back into Honduras and gaining refuge at the Brazilian embassy there. Gaining control of the Bajo Aguán to the north, and already having substantial influence to the south in Nicaragua, Chávez or his successor might eventually have little difficulty in controlling most of Honduras; he came close to doing so in 2009.
Chávez’ health is a closely guarded state secret; he may be dying of cancer but then he may not be. Should he survive and be reelected, that’s what he wants; if he dies before the election he and those who have power because of him need a successor to continue his policies. Cuba is at center stage in this. That’s where Chávez had surgery for cancer and that’s where he received most of his chemotherapy. Brazil would have been better, but can’t perform the sophisticated socialist medical miracles attributed to Cuba; nor would it have assured the necessary secrecy as well as did Cuba. Venezuela? Great medical care was once available there; my wife and I used it and generally found it excellent. It is no longer. Venezuela supplies most of Cuba’s petroleum requirements and in return Cuba has become deeply embedded in the Venezuelan government, particularly the military, to the extent that Venezuela has become a de facto colony of Cuba. Chávez refers affectionately to Fidel Castro as “my father.”
And now to get back to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Russia and China are supplying Venezuelan with military goodies and Iran has some it would like to sell and probably control as well. It has been reported that Iran is building
intermediate-range missile launch pads at a base on the Paraguaná Peninsula in Venezuela (via Die Welt).
The J-Post says the Revolutionary Guard-controlled engineering group Khatam al-Anbia is helping build the site said, that will include missile defenses, special forces units, and control stations.
If true, Iran might find it easier to retaliate directly against the United States for recently imposed sanctions. Military.com notes,
“As responsible nations toughen sanctions on Iran and the regime becomes increasingly isolated, it makes sense that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would seek a helping hand from fellow dictators and human rights abusers,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who has dubbed the visit the “Tour of Tyrants.”
Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has called for secret briefings later this month to evaluate the administration’s response to Iran’s growing influence in the region.
Iraj Milani, the deputy in charge of the Iranian Embassy in Colombia, said the trip is designed to boost bilateral trade and find new opportunities for Iranian construction companies that have an expertise in tunnel and dam building. It comes as Iran’s incipient trade in the region is surging, and the country is rolling out new embassies.
“Our government is simply trying to diversify its trading partners and promote more ‘South-South’ collaboration,” he said. And Ahmadinejad is eager to promote regional unity among “nationalistic” leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.
“But the United States is worried about this ongoing integration because it’s not in their strategic interests,” he said. “And it’s taking place in a region that they have always considered their backyard.”
Of course it’s not in the United States’ strategic interests, probably even as viewed by the Obama Administration. The same is true of much that happens in Latin America but which the United States either encourages (see, e.g., the situation in Honduras) or is currently impotent to change for the better. According to a State Department spokesperson,
“I believe those countries are well aware of the US position regarding Iran and, they are also well aware to current efforts with the European Union to increase international sanctions to Iran”, said the State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland.
. . . .Ms Nuland did not go further in her statements nor did she reveal if the State Department has contacted the hosting countries.
Whether the United States likes it or not, much of Latin America will do as it pleases without regard to the desires of the United States.
Iran has significantly increased its diplomatic presence in the region having opened new embassies in Colombia, Nicaragua, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia. It has also expanded its diplomatic staff in the embassies of Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. The Teheran regime has also intensified trade with the region, particularly with Venezuela. Trade with Brazil has soared 700% in the last decade and with Ecuador has jumped from 8 million dollars in 2007 to 168 million in 2008.
Should President Obama extend the hand of fellowship to Messrs Ahmadinejad, Chávez, Castro, Ortega, Correna and maybe even to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un? Should he apologize a bit more to them and to all others the United States had offended before he ascended to the Presidency? True, Chavez recently referred to President Obama as a clown and an embarrassment, but so what? Perhaps he could persuade Ahmadinejad to let him tag along during his Latin American travels to offer profound apologies for past misunderstandings, all of which he could lay at the feet of previous Bush Regimes.
Although asserting that Venezuela’s improved relations with Iran and Cuba are not in the Venezuela’s best interests because they have “undermined public powers in Venezuela,” that makes little sense. Long a de facto colony of Cuba, public powers in Venezuela had been well on the way to total negation by the Chávez regime before Iran came on the scene. President Obama said,
With regard to Iran, the international community’s concerns are well known. Ultimately, it is up to the Venezuelan people to determine what they gain from a relationship with a country that violates universal human rights and is isolated from much of the world. The Iranian government has consistently supported international terrorism that has killed innocent men, women and children around the world – including in the Americas. It has brutally suppressed the Iranian people simply for demanding their universal rights. (Emphasis added)
It must seem strange for people in Venezuela to hear that anything is “up to” them. It has become a country of the Chavistas, by the Chavistas and for the Chavistas; if “the Venezuelan people” don’t like the results of the next election, Minister of Defense Rangel Silva will deal with them. The red tide may have turned a bit in Venezuela, but it’s not our doing. It is due to the horrific and worsening conditions there.
President Obama also said,
As President, I’ve committed the United States to a new era of partnership with the region based on equality, shared responsibility, mutual interests and mutual respect. This reflects the reality that Latin America is a dynamic and growing region in which nations are playing a greater role in advancing prosperity and security, across the Americas and around the world. And at the upcoming Summit of the Americas, I look forward to deepening our cooperation.
Some in the region—including the Venezuelan government — have demonstrated anti-American tendencies. But to be blunt, I don’t think the people of the Americas want to live in the past because they’re interested in the future. I believe that most people in the Americas are tired of refighting old ideological battles because it doesn’t do anything to help their daily lives. Our citizens want to know what we stand for, not just what we stand against. Our citizens are focused on what our governments can do to help them realize their aspirations, like jobs that pay good wages, education for our children, security in their communities, and a future where our economies and countries are tied together more closely and where fundamental human rights are respected. That’s what our people want. That’s what we owe them. (Emphasis added)
We may be “tired of refighting old ideological battles” and we may be “focused on what our governments can do to help [us] realize [our] aspirations. . . .” But most in the United States think the government can best help by getting the Hell out of the way domestically and that’s the focus of many of the ideological battles now being waged in the United States. Latin America? Crime is probably the greatest problem there and in many of the Latin American nations those in government are the principal criminals.
My perception, and I hope I am wrong, is that the influence of the United States in most of Latin America has diminished to the point that what we want matters little. Brazil has become the regional economic powerhouse and China has long worked hard to gain economic ascendency throughout the region.
A slow motion Chinese economic earthquake has struck Brazil and major aftershocks continue. China is already Brazil’s biggest investor and trade partner. China’s exports to Brazil increased from $1.2 billion in 2000 to $25.5 billion in 2010 while Brazilian exports to China climbed more than thirty-fold from $1 billion to $30.7 billion — giving Brazil an estimated $5.2 billion annual trade surplus with China.
The United States having lost her own ascendency, regaining it would be very difficult and doing so seems of little interest to United States.
To repeat the analogy at the beginning of this article: Herds of horses have leaders. They establish dominance by fighting all comers and by protecting the lesser horses within the herd. Eventually, fighting ceases to be necessary. A hard stare, the baring of teeth or even a kicking gesture become sufficient. Only when the dominant horse weakens or a new horse is introduced into the herd and tries to assert dominance is actual combat necessary. The winner becomes and remains the new leader until another horse asserts and establishes dominance.
Relations among nations are much the same. The United States has forfeited the perception of Latin American countries that she is dominant and that she will assist them to defend against others. Regaining that perception would require starting again from scratch and we may well not be willing to try. The current administration is neither willing nor able.