Was there any hand that President Obama would refuse to shake on his "unclenched fist" Latin American tour? Apparently not.
Mr. Obama not only warmly embraced Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez Friday night on his trip to the region, he thanked him for the book that Chavez gave him during the Latin American Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Mr. Obama called the donation to the Obama library "a nice gesture" since "I'm a reader." But I wonder how scintillating our president will find Chavez's selection: "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," by Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano. The book, predictably, blames the United States and other foreign interests for exploiting Latin America for centuries.
While America's record of meddling in South America leaves enormous room for improvement — there's something of a ghastly direct line between the Monroe Doctrine and Washington's policy in more modern times in Chile — Chavez would undoubtedly not have given his new-found-friend a book about his own oppressive tactics at home and abroad, say ""The Threat Closer to Home: Hugo Chavez and the War against America," by Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen and Michael Rowan.
The Schoen/Rowan book convincingly describes Chavez's growing megalomania and the danger he poses not only to his own country, but to democratically elected government in the region at large. Seeing himself as a modern day Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro, whom he calls his "father" and "comrade," Chavez is often underestimated or dismissed as a buffoon due to his melodramatic rhetoric and gestures. But Schoen and Rowan paint a consistent, disturbing pattern of strong-armed tactics and covert activity aimed at what he has called "the most murderous American empire."
At home, he has ruthlessly suppressed democratic critics, shut down opposition newspapers, intimidated and jailed opponents, nationalized businesses and tried to expand his power at the expense of Venezuela's constitution. In foreign policy, he has facilitated drug smuggling to the United States, actively supported terrorism by aiding Palestinian Islamic Hamas, which rules Gaza, and militant Shiite Hezbollah, which dominates politics in Lebanon, and consistently backed Iran. He has hosted Russian nuclear exercises and invited Moscow to base weapons in his country. And he has used Venezuela's s vast oil resources to destabilize democrats in neighboring countries and pay off influential voices within the U.S.
Asked about Obama's policy towards Hugo Chavez, Douglas Schoen expressed concern. "If the Obama administration insists that Cuba must change before we open diplomatic relations with them, why shouldn't we set the same standard for Venezuela?" he said. He is not alone in questioning the president's apparent course. Over the weekend, former CIA director Michael Hayden also urged caution. "Here's a case where I would watch for behavior, not for rhetoric, and the behavior of President Chavez over the past years has been downright horrendous — both internationally and with regard to what he's done internally inside Venezuela," Hayden told "FOX News Sunday."
For his part, Mr. Obama has dismissed such concerns. It is absurd, he argued, for America to feel threatened by a country whose "defense budget is one-six hundredth of the United States," he said. "It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or that having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we endanger the strategic interests of the United States," Obama added over the weekend.
Fair enough. And perhaps President Obama's gestures may yet result in improved relations with Caracas. That could be useful. But the real test of the Obama book exchange program, his listening and contrition outreach, his warm handshakes and gentle, patient words, will be whether Hugo Chavez changes his own policies and stops destabilizing America's friends in the region and aiding its enemies abroad. So how do you say in Spanish: the jury is still out?