Latin Diplomacy Hits a Wall

With the nadir of Chavismo and Bush’s visit today with Calderón, the president has an opportunity. But Washington is putting up barriers to diplomacy.

When President Hugo Chavez addressed the UN General Assembly in September, the effluvium surrounding the podium was definitely not sulfur lingering from George Bush's speech the previous day. But it might have been hot air escaping from the Venezuelan premier's deflating ego.

Though he was ready to fight against Yanqui imperialism, with the very-much-alive Noam Chomsky penning the playbook, Chavez and his much-trumpeted influence in Latin America-if he ever had any-are fading, and the United States has failed to take advantage. The victory of born-again free trader Daniel Ortega aside, Chavez and his regional allies have suffered defeat after defeat over the last several months. Alan García Pérez in Peru, Felipe Calderón in Mexico and Álvaro Noboa in Ecuador either have, or are poised to, beat Chavez-backed candidates with anti-American leanings.

The selection of Panama, instead of Venezuela or American-backed Guatemala, for a seat at the UN Security Council signaled the regional repudiation of Chavismo and its practitioner.

American policy, however, remains stuck in neutral. Current immigration policy-such as the 700-mile fence that will cover a third of our southern border-precludes the regional cooperation necessary to secure our borders in an increasingly globalized War on Terror. America needs a realistic and comprehensive strategy to tackle this challenge, one that does not link public rapprochement with the United States to political suicide for Latin American leaders.

"This is a moment of isolation for Venezuela on the world stage", former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN Milos Alcalay told the New York Times. "The democratic left in Latin America was becoming alienated by Venezuela's militaristic language."

But just as Venezuela's isolation increases, so does that of the United States. That can start changing today, when Mexican President-elect Calderón visits Washington.

These days, Washington plays the role of the "Colossus del Norte" perfectly, enervating potential allies and throwing fuel on Chavez's rhetorical fire. For pundits and politicians allegedly concerned with "secure borders", the en vogue approach to immigration is mystifyingly self-defeating. A fence or wall will not deter migrants who knowingly risk death to enter the United States illegally.

Aside from impracticality, this approach misdiagnoses the security threat the southern border poses. The danger is not the thousands of Mexicans and other Latin Americans who seek a better life for themselves and their families in the United States, like generations of immigrants before them. The threat is Islamist terrorists, who increasingly use Latin America as an organizational center and exploit our porous southern border to enter the United States.

The tri-border region, which encompasses the shared borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, has long been a Hizballah stronghold, something the Party of God's leadership is not shy about publicizing. Hamas also fundraises in the region. And while these organizations threaten the United States less than Al-Qaeda, they are creating an infrastructure and paradigm that splinter groups and copycats could utilize.

With these threats in mind, the State Department announced the establishment of a regional intelligence center to combat illicit activities in the tri-border region last summer. It made for a good start, but is not enough.

As the State Department's Henry Crumpton told Congress in May: "The cooperation [in the tri-border region] is uneven. We think there is some progress. . . . But we need to encourage more and we need to help [Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay], I think, across the board to get to where they all understand that they need to be."

The tri-border region, however, is not the only Latin American locale that demands intelligence and security cooperation with our regional allies. Tackling the metastasizing terrorist threat in the Western hemisphere needs to start close to home, with our most important Latin American ally, Mexico. Last month, the Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that Mexican federal agents are currently investigating Hizballah fundraising by wealthy Mexican businessmen. Simultaneously, Venezuela strengthened its ties with Damascus and Tehran, agreeing to help build a $1.5 billion oil refinery in Syria.

It is in the national interest to embrace, not undermine, newly elected leaders who reject Chavez's global outlook. In Mexico's case, continued wall building, both literally and diplomatically, is counterproductive. Diplomacy is certainly a two-way street, but Mexico has much to gain from cooperation on border security. One of its most prominent foreign affairs analysts, Andrés Rozental Gutman, who could be very influential in Calderón's administration, recently described Mexico's current immigration stance as an "ostrich policy" and called for "shared responsibility" in handling the migration issue.

For an American leadership fixated on prosecuting the War on Terror, the failure to implement a realistic and effective border security plan is inexcusable.

Speaking on the implications of 9/11 in April 2002, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said: "We have enormous opportunities to work in partnership with Mexico's new democratic leadership to protect our common welfare-and the president is determined to seize those opportunities."

The same is true of all Latin America today, and President-elect Calderón's visit to Washington is the appropriate time to translate those words into action.

Sean R. Singer is an Apprentice Editor at The National Interest.