Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remains a hot topic in U.S. politics. (Ariana Cubillos / AP File…)
Is Venezuela’s cancer-ridden strongman Hugo Chavez a serious threat to the national security of the United States?
Mitt Romney thinks so. And the Republican presidential candidate sharply attacked President Obama on Wednesday for appearing to think otherwise — a hard-line salvo likely to resonate loudest in the southern part of the swing state of Florida, where conservative Cuban Americans are a potent voting bloc.
What Obama actually stated, in a brief White House interview this week with a Spanish-language radio and TV journalist, did not, on its face, appear all that incendiary. In fact, his remarks were in line with the long-standing view of both his administration and the administration of Republican President George W. Bush: that Chavez, despite his virulent anti-Americanism and dealings with unsavory regimes around the world, hasn’t had a serious impact on the national security of the United States.
That’s not to say that the last two U.S. administrations haven’t been aware of Chavez’s increasing relations with state sponsors of terrorism, specifically Iran, which was the subject of a question posed to the president on Monday by Oscar Haza of Miami’s WJAN-TV.
"We're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe. But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us," Obama said in an interview that aired Tuesday night. "We have to be vigilant. My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs, and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don't always see."
Quick to jump on the president’s words was Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American from south Florida who Romney says he’s vetting as a possible vice-presidential running mate.
Rubio, in a statement early Wednesday, charged that Obama had been "living under a rock when it comes to recognizing the national security threat posed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.” While crediting the Obama State Department for having expelled a Venezuelan diplomat earlier this year, after a report that the woman had taken part in discussions about possible cyber attacks against the U.S., the Republican senator said that Obama “continues to display an alarmingly naïve understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face in the Western Hemisphere.”
A few hours later, Romney himself joined the criticism, deploring what he described as Obama’s “stunning and shocking comment.”
"It is disturbing to see him downplaying the threat posed to U.S. interests by a regime that openly wishes us ill,” said Romney. Chavez "is seeking to lead — together with the Castros — a destabilizing, anti-democratic and anti-American 'Bolivarian Revolution’ across Latin America.”
Later, in an interview on Fox, Romney repeated the criticism. “I was stunned by his comments and shocked by them,” Romney said.
“The idea that this nation, that this president, doesn’t pose a national security threat to this country is simply naïve. It’s an extraordinary admission on the part of this president to be completely out of touch with what is happening in Latin America… This is a very misguided and misdirected thought, ” he said.
(Romney’s own foreign-policy priorities came under fire from Democrats when, during the spring primaries, he declared that Russia was the nation’s "No. 1 geopolitical foe.")
Romney’s warning about Chavez seemed somewhat at odds with a recent assessment by one of his own foreign-policy advisers. Ray Walser, in a May 7 blog post, predicted that Chavez’s 13-year reign was rapidly drawing to a close, with the Venezuelan strongman suffering from an aggressive form of cancer.
“Chavez’s health continues to deteriorate. Incapacity and/or death appear increasingly probable within months,” wrote Walser, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation and co-chairman of Romney’s working group on Latin America.
In sharp contrast to Romney’s warning about the external threat posed by Chavez, his policy adviser wrote that the continued existence of the Bolivarian Revolution was now in doubt. The most immediate danger, Walser indicated, may well be internal instead — to human rights and democracy, as Venezuelans prepare to choose a new president this fall, a concern that aligned closely with Obama’s remark in the interview about the need for free and fair elections in Venezuela.
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