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Southern distractions

The U.S. should see saber-rattling from Venezuela and Bolivia for what it is -- regional politics.

September 15, 2008

After expelling U.S. ambassadors from their countries last week, presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia railed about ending American interference in their countries' domestic politics. This came after Chavez invited four Russian naval vessels to participate in joint training exercises in the Caribbean and allowed Russian long-range bombers to visit, while ranting about warding off an invasion by the United States.

Did somebody announce we are at war with Latin America and forget to tell us? The expulsion of the ambassadors came seemingly without provocation, and the notion that President Bush is plotting an invasion is laughable. Yet for Chavez and Morales, provoking the United States serves two purposes: It distracts domestic attention from their disastrous policies and could, they hope, produce an overreaction in kind from Washington that would further their interests.

Friction with the U.S. is essential to the political welfare of both leaders; their support is partly built on anti-Americanism. And they're both facing challenges at home. Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president, is aggressively attempting to redistribute the country's wealth. That policy is popular with the indigenous majority, but wealthy white landowners in five provinces are fighting to secede from the country -- a move Morales says is supported by a racist U.S. government. Chavez remains reasonably popular at home, but a 34% inflation rate has intensified scrutiny of his incompetent domestic policies. It is an opportune moment for saber-rattling. By redirecting attention northward, the two leaders stoke the ever-present resentment toward the U.S. and tempt hard-liners here to respond in kind.

We shouldn't rise to their bait. Already, some members of Congress are calling to rescind trade preferences for Bolivia, but that's a poorly thought-out step. Bolivians rely on the trade deal for employment, and we rely on employed Bolivians not to grow coca.

Some analysts suggest that Chavez and Morales are also trying to influence the presidential election. Their attempts to fan hostility with the U.S. would be weakened if Democratic candidate Barack Obama, who is popular in much of Latin America, ends up in the White House. By pretending to pose a security threat, Chavez might be trying to boost the chances of Republican John McCain, who is more hawkish on defense matters. The last thing Chavez and Morales want is a U.S. president who encourages dialogue with hostile regimes.

Neither Obama nor McCain has articulated a detailed policy on Latin America. It would be in the interest of both to craft one that dispenses with Cold War attitudes and focuses on relieving poverty through trade and assistance. But punishing Morales and vilifying Chavez are not the way to go. That would only give them more power.

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