Washington neglects Latin America at its peril, as became apparent to the Bush administration this month. Recent events have underscored why a policy of continuous, constructive engagement is far better than letting the region's future slip into the hands of autocrats like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
Chavez has spent years tweaking Washington by deepening his links to Iran, helping insurgents in Colombia and negotiating multibillion-dollar arms purchases from Russia. Recently, the escalation has been dramatic.
His government has curtailed landing rights for major U.S. airlines. He rallied his allies in Bolivia and Honduras to jointly expel U.S. ambassadors. He'll hold war games with Russia in November. Last week, he allowed Russia to fly two Tu-160 long-range bombers to Venezuela. The Cold War is staging a revival tour.
What explains Chavez's recklessness? Domestically, oil-rich Venezuela is a mess. His international exploits help distract Venezuelans from the misery and economic mismanagement his Bolivarian Revolution has wrought. Inflation stands at 30 percent. Nearly half the population lacks full employment. The murder rate is the hemisphere's second highest.
Chavez craves the fame he would garner by humiliating the United States in a confrontation. We can let ourselves be sucked into playing his game, or Washington can choose a smarter approach, defining our own terms of engagement. But engage we must.
That should include coordinating a diplomatic push with regional heavyweights such as Brazil, Chile and Argentina to curb Chavez's adventurism. Boosting aid to Venezuelan pro-democracy activists would help even the playing field in upcoming elections.
The next U.S. administration will have several other options to deal with this problem. But continuing to leave Latin America on autopilot must not be one of them.
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