WASHINGTON - When someone sticks his face in yours and shouts you're his biggest enemy, it's a good idea to take them at their word.
Enter, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Recently, while hosting Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Chavez publicly committed to "saving the world from the imperialism and capitalist hegemony that threaten the human species." Topping the Chavez-Assad enemies list was the "Empire" - aka, the United States, followed closely by Israel.
Chavez has roiled U.S.-Latin American relations since taking office in 1998. And he's done nothing to tone down his act since Barack Obama entered the White House.
The Chavista model of "Bolivarian Revolution" uses the ballot box to gain power, then consolidates it through coercion, confiscation, manipulation and assaults on freedom.
Promising to end the "excesses" of capitalism, it expands economic socialism propped up primarily by Venezuela's vast oil wealth. The soundtrack accompanying all strong-arm tactics and power play is a steady stream of virulent anti-American rhetoric.
With his fiery sense of mission and a purse filled with oil revenues, Chavez has built an alliance of like-minded nations. The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela.
In dealing with the ALBA-tross, the Obama administration has sought to avoid direct confrontation with Chavez, while trying to develop better ties with less hard-core ALBA affiliates like Ecuador and Bolivia. It's not working particularly well.
Ecuador's Rafael Correa has already forced out a U.S. anti-drug air base, colluded with narco-terrorists in Colombia, clamped down on press freedom and undermined rule of law. Despite this bad-boy behavior, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Quito on a diplomatic courting session earlier this month. Her advances made no apparent headway.
In Bolivia, Obama hopes to unthaw frozen relations with President Evo Morales, a man who famously promised to be America's "worst nightmare." He has expelled the U.S. ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Agency. He's now talking about kicking out the Agency for International Development. Morales' relentless paranoia, constantly stoked and enflamed by Chavez, continues to poison relations.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega - flush with Chavez's oil money - is poised to wreck that nation's fragile democracy, trying to alter the constitution so he can run for yet more terms as the president.
In Honduras, pro-U.S. President "Pepe" Lobo struggles to restore civic calm and democratic governance one year after the removal of a Chavez ally and populist wannabe, Manuel Zelaya.
The prospects for democratic change in Cuba remain bleak. Oil subsidies from a worshipful Chavez give the Castro brothers the economic wherewithal to maintain the repressive apparatus of state security, prisons and censorship.
At the April 2008 Summit of the Americas, Obama and Chavez shook hands. Chavez declared, "I want to be your friend." But instead of the open hand of friendship el Presidente has since displayed little but clenched fists.
Yes, Chavez has deigned to allow our ambassador to return to Caracas. But he has also threatened war with our ally Colombia, backed narco-terrorists, redoubled his arms build-up and offered total backing to nuclear-weapon-hungry Iran. Venezuela has become an international hub for radicals and anti-Americans of all stripes and a major transit point for cocaine flowing to West Africa and Europe.
The Axis of Hugo today threatens the political, economic and security health of the region and will continue to do so for years.
The proper role of the United States is to stand up for the values and principles of free societies, defend our interests and those of our friends, and keep a short leash on those who openly declare themselves as enemies.
Dealing with the Axis of Hugo requires honesty and vigilance - not wishful glad-handing and looking the other way.
Ray Walser is the senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America at The Heritage Foundation.