Media: When you said that Venezuela and Cuba have not been helpful, or their activities in Bolivia, can you be more specific about why or how or what way?
Rumsfeld: I could be, but I don’t think I will be.
- Secretary Rumsfeld Media Availability En Route to Paraguay, 8/17
Nine months ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to Quito, Ecuador for a meeting of Latin Americaâ€™s defense ministers. His message then was that the region had to cooperate and prepare for a fight against â€œterrorists, drug traffickers, hostage takers, and criminal gangs.â€ Many in the region bristled at the prospect of the Bush Administration exporting the â€œwar on terrorâ€ to a part of the world with few terrorist groups.
Well, never mind that. On a trip to Paraguay and Peru last week, Rumsfeld did mention the threat of transnational crime and â€œantisocial behavior,â€ but his main focus was elsewhere, as the New York Times reported Friday.
Two senior Defense Department officials traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld said that post-Sept. 11, 2001, worries about Islamic militant groups operating in the so-called Tri-Border area, where the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, had receded. In their place, the officials said, is a more familiar set of concerns, including the Venezuelan and Cuban presidents. â€¦ Mr. Rumsfeld’s goal in Peru and in Paraguay earlier was to stitch together support for isolating Mr. ChÃ¡vez, who has become bitterly anti-Washington. â€¦ The two American officials traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld said Mr. ChÃ¡vez, sometimes with Cuban help, was quietly backing leftist movements in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region.
Faced with the growing appeal of Hugo ChÃ¡vez and other populist leaders in the region, the Bush Administration sent its secretary of defense. It sent Donald Rumsfeld, one of the most visible faces of the globally unpopular Iraq war, and an unloved figure in Latin America.
Donald Rumsfeld who, by the way, is not the head of the U.S. diplomatic corps. He is the titular head of the U.S. military. Why is the U.S. Secretary of Defense traveling to Latin America to warn against a political tendency?
It may mean that the Bush Administration is starting to treat Hugo ChÃ¡vez and what the Southern Command has called â€œradical populismâ€ as a defense issue or a security threat. That would be a very bad idea. Itâ€™s important to say the following early and clearly:
- The spread of leftist politics in Latin America is not something that should concern the U.S. military.
- Confronting the spread of leftist politics in Latin America should not be a mission for U.S. military assistance to the region.
- The U.S. government must not view Latin Americaâ€™s militaries as a bulwark or counterweight against leftist political movements.
So far, the concerns about Cuba and Venezuela that dominated Rumsfeldâ€™s trip have not translated into increased military assistance. In fact, both countries Rumsfeld visited have their non-drug military aid frozen right now, because neither Paraguay nor Peru has signed an â€œArticle 98â€ agreement giving U.S. military personnel immunity from the International Criminal Court.
We think itâ€™s important, though, to start talking about this now, because Rumsfeld and other officials are being so vague about the nature of the threat that theyâ€™re warning against. What exactly are ChÃ¡vez and Castro doing to spread â€œradical populismâ€ around the region? Donald Rumsfeld could tell you, but he doesnâ€™t think he will. Just take his word for it.
The defense delegation did make clear, however, that it has its eye on Bolivia. Rumsfeld was hosted by two countries whose governments have both distanced themselves from ChÃ¡vez-style populism, and who both share a border with Bolivia. (In Paraguay, in fact, the U.S. military has been carrying out joint military exercises, and rumors have been circulating about U.S.-funded improvements to a Paraguayan base in BoquerÃ³n, near the Bolivian border, which the U.S. embassy denies.)
Street protests have ejected two Bolivian presidents since October 2003: Gonzalo SÃ¡nchez de Losada, who had won with just over 20 percent of the vote, and his replacement, Carlos Mesa. In both cases, the protesters have been largely non-violent, and with the exception of the October 2003 protests, the state has not responded violently. The protestors have mostly been poor and/or indigenous Bolivians, whose political influence and organization have been increasing. Their demands include national control of natural-gas reserves, an end to hard-line coca-eradication policies, greater recognition of indigenous rights, and opposition to â€œneoliberalismâ€ in general. Their main form of protest has been widespread road blockades, which usually means large groups of people in the middle of the countryâ€™s main roads, hauling in rocks and debris to prevent traffic from passing, and shutting down national commerce for weeks.
The Bush Administration seems to believe that this rise of poor and indigenous opposition is not a homegrown Bolivian phenomenon, that in fact it owes to meddling from the Cuba-Venezuela â€œaxis.â€ A July 27 State Department letter to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) voiced concerns â€œthat Venezuela is using its wealth gained from oil production to destabilize the country’s democratic neighbors in the Americas by funding anti-democratic groups in Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere.â€
The Pentagon-run American Forces Press Service goes further, citing â€œthe menace Cuba and Venezuela pose to the region, and most immediately, to Paraguay’s neighbor Bolivia. A senior defense official told reporters traveling with Rumsfeld that Cuban ideology, backed by Nicaraguan financing, is targeting nations like Bolivia that are teetering between democracy and leftist governments and could go either way.â€
Because of the deliberate vagueness of Rumsfeldâ€™s and other officialsâ€™ statements, we donâ€™t know what exactly the U.S. government thinks ChÃ¡vez and Castro are supporting in Bolivia.
The distinction is important. Are they encouraging the spread of violence, insurgency, terrorism or assassination? If so â€“ if the evidence indicates that foreign actors are encouraging Bolivians to murder Bolivians â€“ then the Venezuelan assistance would be a regional security issue.
Or are Cuba and Venezuela merely supporting leftist political parties and non-violent social movements? For instance, though no proof has been presented, it would not be surprising to learn that ChÃ¡vez is giving funding, and Castro advice (he has no money to give) to the MAS (â€œMovement Toward Socialismâ€), Boliviaâ€™s leading leftist party, led by cocalero leader and congressman Evo Morales.
Though it supported the protests that forced the exits of SÃ¡nchez and Mesa, MAS is a political party participating in the electoral process, electing congressmen and mayors, and forging alliances with other, more moderate parties and movements. MAS has its sights on the early elections called for December 4, but Morales is polling only 21 percent, and the party performed disappointingly in late 2004 local elections, so it will need to do some coalition-building if it expects to make a good showing. It is a stretch to call a party that’s participating in its third straight electoral campaign "undemocratic."
Whether or not it exists, Cuban-Venezuelan support for MAS is not an issue for the Bolivian military, or any other military, to take on with U.S. encouragement. One of the most promising developments in Latin America since the Cold War ended is that most of the regionâ€™s militaries have not stood in the way of leftist parties and candidates who have come to power through elections. External support for MAS is not a reason to reverse this progress. It is not a reason to re-politicize the regionâ€™s militaries. And it is not a reason to increase U.S. military assistance.
Besides, funding foreign opposition movements is something the United States does all the time, including in Venezuela. When these movements arenâ€™t violent, this aid usually stirs up only mild protest. If ChÃ¡vezâ€™s â€œmeddlingâ€ merely consists of using his oil money to support like-minded political parties, the Bush Administration can do many things to express its displeasure. But thereâ€™s no need to involve either the U.S. or the Bolivian militaries.
Instead of blaming the rise of Boliviaâ€™s leftist politics on foreign machinations, the U.S. government should alter its policies to address the reasons why the MAS and similar movements have won the hearts and minds of so many Bolivians. Jim Shultz, a U.S. citizen who runs the Democracy Center, a Cochabamba-based NGO, said it well recently in his excellent â€œBlog from Bolivia.â€
Letâ€™s be clear. Does the left in Bolivia have ties and kinship with Cuba and Venezuela? Absolutely. Are the influences from those two countries the reason for Bolivian political upheaval? Absolutely not. â€¦ I can tell you all â€“ living here, not in the US second guessing at things from afar â€“ that the political uprisings of the past five years in Bolivia are the product of genuine Bolivian movements about taking back control of the nationâ€™s future.
The Bush Administration should forget about whatever support is coming from Venezuela and treat Boliviaâ€™s populism as the homegrown movement that it is. If it wants to keep this movement from turning virulently anti-American, it will have to respond with more than just visits from Rumsfeld and gifts of riot gear.
At the regional level, nobody expects the Bush Administration to support the Chavista agenda for Latin America. From his expansion of military roles to his arms purchases to his elimination of checks on the executive branch, we have concerns about ChÃ¡vez too. But if the Bush Administration were truly serious about the spread of Cuban-Venezuelan influence, it wouldnâ€™t treat it as a defense or military issue. Presenting an attractive alternative to â€œradical populismâ€ will require much more creativity than that.
It would mean taking some steps like the following:
- Treat the spread of â€œradical populismâ€ as a diplomatic issue, not a defense challenge. Hugo ChÃ¡vez is constantly visiting his neighbors, listening to what they have to say, burnishing his image and opening channels of communication. By contrast, the United States cannot be said to be assiduously courting leaders and parties throughout the region. While U.S. officials have paid a few more visits this year, the high-level meetings and diplomatic initiatives are still quite rare, and the OAS is a vastly underutilized forum. Meanwhile, much of the region sees us scolding about counter-terrorism, counter-drug certification, and International Criminal Court immunity while reducing economic aid, budging little on debt relief or immigration, and giving little ground in trade negotiations.
- Keep your mouth shut and donâ€™t take the bait. In a letter to Rumsfeld last week, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter wrote, â€œI suggest it may be very helpful to U.S. efforts to secure Venezuela’s co-operation in our joint attack on drug interdiction if the rhetoric would be reduced.â€ Thatâ€™s good advice. ChÃ¡vez and Fidel Castro thrive on public criticism from U.S. officials. Whenever Rumsfeld or another senior official criticizes him in public, ChÃ¡vez invokes the stereotype of the big bully to the north, keeps his supporters on the alert and diverts the debate away from legitimate concerns like militarization, arms purchases, curbs on the media or persistent unemployment. By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earned praise for avoiding public name-calling during her April trip to the region.
- Increase economic aid. If the U.S. government is truly worried about the stability of the regionâ€™s democracies, it will have to do more â€“ and spend more â€“ to help elected governments reduce popular disenchantment and frustration. More aid is needed to help democracies become more responsive, more accountable, and better able to deliver basic services. This is not happening. According to the Bush Administrationâ€™s last foreign aid budget request, nearly every country in the region can expect a significant cut to its development assistance, anti-disease programs, and economic support funds in 2006. Bolivia, which is expected to undergo a $4.6 million cut in alternative development aid, is no exception. While Bolivia is among the countries considered eligible to receive a large grant of economic aid under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), its approval is far from certain, especially given this yearâ€™s political turmoil. The MCA isn’t designed to aid basket cases.
- Do a better sales job. Itâ€™s not news that the United Statesâ€™ image is suffering worldwide, in large part because of widespread opposition to the Iraq war and the Bush Administrationâ€™s unilateralism. That damage will be hard to undo. But more candor, less heavy-handedness, and much more investment in public diplomacy â€“ the stuff that the U.S. Information Agency used to do before congressional Republicans closed it down â€“ would make a difference. However, even a slick PR campaign from Karen Hughes will have little effect if poor Latin Americans continue to see the U.S. government as a bully, a scold, or an ally of corrupt local political elites.
- Cut back dependence on imported oil. Itâ€™s ironic that even Hugo ChÃ¡vezâ€™s biggest detractors are increasing his revenue every time they fill up their SUVs â€“ especially now, as oil closes in on $70 per barrel. If the Bush Administration really loathed and feared ChÃ¡vez that much, it would reduce the flow of dollars to him by investing far more in developing alternative fuels and encouraging fuel conservation. Since absolutely none of that is happening, we can conclude that the administrationâ€™s concerns about ChÃ¡vez and the spread of â€œradical populismâ€ donâ€™t go that far.