By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 10, 2006 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- It's a rare U.S. official who speaks publicly about Latin America these days without obsessing over Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and suggesting a looming threat from the left in the region.
But last week, Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, displayed a moment of reason over fear when he countered the usual rhetoric in an interview with El Pais of Spain. He told the newspaper that the rise of elected populist leaders with socialist inclinations should not be seen as a threat. Instead, he said, Washington ought "to show solidarity with those countries, acknowledge that form of political expression as valid and respectable, and help to create structures that channel it positively.''
Shannon, a career diplomat who took office in October, said Chavez's influence in particular is exaggerated, disputing claims that the Venezuelan leader engineered the electoral triumph of Evo Morales in Bolivia. Moreover, he said, "the great challenge we face in the region is not Venezuela or Chavez but rather poverty, marginalization and the inability of some societies to provide the goods and services that people expect.''
Sadly, Shannon's words were eclipsed by the more typical hyperbole.
At a Senate hearing on worldwide threats to the United States last week, John Negroponte, director of national intelligence, raised the specter of Chavez aligning himself with parts of President Bush's "axis of evil," warning that Chavez seeks "closer economic, military, and diplomatic ties with Iran and North Korea.'' That same day, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the National Press Club, harked back to the original evil axis, noting that Chavez "was elected legally -- just as Adolf Hitler.''
The danger doesn't stop with Chavez. In fact, Rumsfeld said that the elections of other populist leaders in the region such as Morales "clearly are worrisome.'' Just a day earlier, Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., warned about the threat of "a global television network for terrorists and other enemies of freedom'' created through the new alliance between the Arabic network al-Jazeera and Telesur, a Caracas-based TV network funded by Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay.
The new menace from the south is nothing new. Four years ago, the big threat was leftist Brazilian presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Some observers worried that he would reverse the country's pro-market reforms and conspire against the United States with Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. "There is a real prospect,'' said Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, during Lula's bid for election, "that Castro, Chavez, and Lula da Silva could constitute an axis of evil in the Americas which might soon have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.''
After three years of Lula, the world has seen Brazil stand up to Washington and other industrialized nations not as a military threat but for what it is: one of the world's largest emerging economies seeking a better deal in world trade.
Interestingly, it was another career diplomat, U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Donna Hrinak, who helped quiet the fear-mongering rhetoric by coming to Lula's defense. Once Lula's life story -- the quintessential American Dream, as Hrinak described it -- became known, it was no longer easy to frame Lula as a leftist threat.
The point here is not that Chavez is a poor misunderstood Lula or that his intentions are purely noble. Rather it is that words are important and that the caricature of Chavez and of the left's progress in the region serves no one. The words of Rumsfeld, Negroponte and the like are just as ridiculous as Chavez's own when he calls President Bush "Mr. Danger'' -- or, as last weekend, when he said Hitler was "a suckling baby next to Mr. Danger.''
The words of Shannon, devoid of passions that make good headlines, are a far better foundation for bolstering U.S. foreign policy in the region. They don't strengthen Chavez's hand by building him up and they don't insult the people who choose Chavez for the hope he continues to represent to them.
Shannon's words also demonstrate a more constructive understanding of what is at stake in the region at a time of deteriorating north-south relations. But what is more, they agree with many Latin American leaders who have long insisted that Chavez is clearly not the voice of reason the region currently needs.
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is email@example.com/.