The Bush administration's recent interest in Latin America may be too little, too late. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a five-day trip to Brazil, El Salvador, Colombia, and Chile in late April; and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed the Council of the Americas in Washington on May 3. "Today the countries of the region are working together in a very constructive way," Mr. Rumsfeld said, claiming. "They're leaning forward in support of democracy."
Unfortunately, the region is dominated by left-wing governments elected on anti-U.S. platforms, a development that cannot be considered constructive.
President George W. Bush has placed the spread of democracy at the center his foreign policy. While democracy may be a necessary element in creating a better world, it is not a sufficient condition. It depends on who wins at the polls.
As Fareed Zakaria noted during the academic debates over the airy notion democracy equated to peace in the 1990s: "In countries not grounded in constitutional liberalism, the rise of democracy often brings with it hypernationalism and warmongering." Leaders can be both popular and authoritarian.
The Bush administration recognizes this problem in regard to President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The democratically elected ex-paratrooper is thought to have financed violent insurgent groups in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Venezuela might have played a role in the revolt that toppled Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutierrez in April.
Mr. Chavez has been accused by U.S. and Colombian officials of supporting the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). Mr. Chavez has been supplying oil to his mentor Fidel Castro in Cuba, and is looking to buy Russian weapons to expand his military.
Cuba and China have sent hundreds of military "advisers" and "trainers" to Venezuela to help the Chavez regime maintain itself against strong domestic opposition and political turmoil.
Venezuelan military training under foreign communist tutelage will not contain any of the values of democracy and respect for human rights that are part of the U.S. approach to creating professional soldiers. The Chinese hold that the army owes its allegiance exclusively to the ruling party. This principle was demonstrated during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists.
An indoctrinated army would appeal to the embattled Venezuelan president, who was ousted briefly by a 2002 coup after his supporters opened fire on hundreds of thousands of unarmed demonstrators. It would run directly contrary to Washington's recent efforts to foster civilian governments whose militaries stayed in their barracks during political crises.
During her Latin trip, Miss Rice tried to rally other democracies against Venezuela. At a joint press conference in Brazil on April 26, she was told repeatedly by Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim that Venezuela's sovereignty must be respected -- meaning no outside intervention.
Though the Organization of American States (OAS) has tried to mediate political disputes in Venezuela to avoid violence, any thought Washington might have of mobilizing a stronger OAS response, such as a condemnation of the Chavez regime or sanctions, is unrealistic. A wedge cannot be driven between Venezuela and Brazil as long as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- another disciple of Mr. Castro's, is president.
With the election of Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza as new OAS secretary-general of the OAS (he was initially opposed by the U.S. but backed by Brazil and Venezuela), there is little hope of diplomatically isolating Venezuela.
Brazil under Lula is as big a problem as Venezuela under Mr. Chavez. Brazil has a "strategic partnership" with China. The statement issued during Lula's visit to Beijing in May 2004 called for "the democratization of international relations and global multipolarization." This has long been Chinese terminology for ending American pre-eminence in world affairs.
Chinese President Hu Jintao spent five days in Brazil last November. "China helped us send satellites to orbit and we, in return, offered techniques to China in the manufacture of airplanes," said Lula.
Brazil has a long-range missile program for space launches and a suspicious nuclear program to which it has restricted international inspection. Given China's record as a proliferator of missile and nuclear technology, the "strategic partnership" to America's south could pose a major security threat if allowed to progress.
China backs Brazil for a seat on the U.N. Security Council, even as it objects to a seat for Japan. Brasilia supports Beijing's "one China" claims to Taiwan and Tibet. China also backed Luiz Felipe de Seixas Correa, Brazil's unsuccessful candidate to become head of the World Trade Organization. Lula has said talks to create a hemispheric free trade agreement were "off the agenda" in favor of strengthening the Mercosur "South American community of nations." Brazil wants to dominate Mercosur, and Beijing is very interested in Mercosur as a source of raw materials.
Simple U.S. homilies about democracy and trade have failed to stem the rise of regimes whose alignments are taking an increasingly dangerous turn.
The Bush administration must consider Latin America a power politics area that is in full play. It must respond with more vigor in what is essentially a political contest over who will rule in the major capitals and how will they behave.