Hugo Chavez and his Sulfuric Angel

December 12, 2006 Region: Americas

Hugo Chavez and his Sulfuric Angel

Despite the geopolitical agitation about Chavez and leftists, when it comes to Latin America, U.S. interests may be most affected by that issue Americans focus on: illegal immigration—or rather, one particular type.

As the agitation over the sweep of leftist leaders in our hemisphere grows, Americans increasingly favor erecting a physical barrier to the Latin American humanity at its gates. Much of America's focus has centered on Venezuela's recently re-elected President Hugo Chavez-the self-assigned challenger of President Bush in cinematic, sulfuric terms. Although Chavez's "Bolivarian" platform may have had limited substantive success thus far, the president has revolutionized what it means to be the president of an oil-rich backwater, catapulting onto the global limelight.

In a roundabout and unintended manner, the Bush Administration has aided the success of Chavez's oil-driven revolution-and that could be the most enduring effect of U.S. policy in the region, although that policy originates far, far away from Venezuela-an issue addressed further below. And the significance of Chavez's success will continue to transcend Venezuela's borders, and could bear on America's other south-of-the-border preoccupation: illegal immigration, or rather one particular type.

Not-So-Huddled Masses

Under Chavez, crime, including gang violence, has skyrocketed-a clear indictment of the Venezuelan president's rule. What is the upside of more centralized, even authoritarian, government if it fails to deliver order and security? Venezuela's rise in crime affects mostly poor neighborhoods (the presumed beneficiaries of Chavez's policies) and is made more worrisome by rise of transnational gangs in Central America, given their influx into the United States, encircling even this nation's capital.

So when it comes to Latin America, U.S. interests may be most affected by the illegal immigration so many beyond-the-beltway Americans are reflexively focused on, despite much of the abstract and vaulted geopolitical discourse about the impact of Chavez and others. But the most significant consequence of illegal immigration is not the impact on U.S. wages and culture, since the economic and cultural picture is at least mixed.

Rather, it is the entry of Latin America's not-so-huddled, ferociously criminal masses-an issue which tends to be mostly leveraged by those arguing against illegal immigration in general (Minutemen, et al.) and is seldom seriously considered by foreign policy thinkers.

Broader regional questions regarding energy resources and trade are made politically static by durable nationalism in Latin America-there are politically inviolable zones on those issues for both left and right leaders. But sound leadership in Latin America could create the conditions to prevent or stem the brutal, transnational criminality of gangs like MS-13 (which originated in El Salvador and has spread across Central America and the United States), regardless of whether the leader has a left or right brand name. Such an approach could incrementally rollback MS-13 in the United States and Central America.

Conversely, the rising lawlessness in Venezuela could grant transnational gangs a gateway into that country and the rest of South America, with profound regional repercussions. Such an expansion could also impact the financial and operational reach of the transnational gangs in the United States.

Gangs of Central America

Many of today's problems are the continuing, residual effect of the circumstances of two decades ago in Latin America. Some of the refugees of civil war in Central America, in which America played a role through proxies and funding, landed in Los Angeles, only to be preyed upon by criminal Mexican gangs. The gangs of Central American immigrants, like MS-13, arose to protect against those predatory Mexican gangs, later devolved into criminal groups themselves, and grew. Some of the gang members had fought in the civil war of their country. Most had been exposed and desensitized to war's violence. Many were deported (and rightfully so) after serving time in the United States and have thereby been able to create a hemispheric network of criminality.

Of course U.S. policy-makers understood that former combatants do not in large numbers retire their weapons and take to, say, shoe cobbling. U.S. officials are well aware of what the aftershocks to a civil war often are. And there has been ample research into how to best reintegrate former combatants into society. But after Washington has intervened somewhere, through proxy or otherwise, it has proven to be often deficient in its follow-through on curbing potential foreign-policy aftershocks-which may have attenuated to some degree the blowback from the U.S. intervention in Central America.

Iraq and Chavez

So which U.S. policies are likely to have an enduring impact on the region today? There has been much discussion of America's lack of focus on the Western hemisphere, due to the Iraq War. But that is mostly benign neglect. Often when Washington acts in Latin America, it undermines its own interests, such as the first time it voiced its disapproval of Bolivia's Evo Morales, succeeding in sending his popularity soaring.

However, the Iraq War has had a profound effect on energy markets, which are affected by psychological factors and projections about the future just as much as the physical supply-demand equation. The jolt to oil prices has been a lifeline to Chavez, whose poor management of the state's oil infrastructure has caused lower output but, thanks to the higher prices, has not hurt overall revenue.

The apparent success of Chavez in Venezuela could be of far-reaching regional importance. If Chavez and his populist platform are to be discredited, they must fail. Without that proven failure, condemnation of his rule can be dismissed as neo-imperialist maneuvering and those espousing serious solutions would sermonize to the four winds. Meanwhile, the gangs that have gone hemispheric could gain a foothold in Venezuela and benefit greatly from the spread of Chavez-style demagogic leadership, blighting the opportunities of youth here and there.

Chavez may call Bush the devil, and grandstand at the United Nations about the Bush's eau de sulfur, but the U.S. president has unwittingly been his financial angel. Sulfur is the smell of Chavez's success.

Ximena Ortiz is the editor of National Interest online.