Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a growing menace to the United States and our democratic allies across Latin America.
Chavez' repression of his own people, frequent wild pronouncements (such as when he told U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair "you are an imperialist pawn who attempts to curry favour with Danger Bush-Hitler, the number one mass murderer and assassin there is on the planet. Go straight to hell, Mr Blair.") and deepening relationships with the world's most unsavory regimes, may seem to mark him as just another movie-like villain on the world stage.
But Chavez is no caricature of Dr. Evil. Chavez is a serious threat, even when he behaves like a cartoonish buffoon. In fact, he has been on an a decade-long mission to personally monopolize all state power and project his ideology to other countries- and it's worked.
The Venezuelan Constitution has been rewritten several times to extend his hold on power, in the process demolishing democratic checks and balances. Representative democracy has been reduced to a fig leaf hiding a repressive regime that has embraced the Fidel Castro play-book of total political and social control.
And then there is the real impact of Chavez' economic policies. His regurgitated "socialism for the 21st century" is driving up inflation while creating both food and electricity shortages, making the daily survival of ordinary Venezuelans a perpetual challenge.
This self-proclaimed new Simon Bolivar (ironically, the father of Latin American democracy) is not just closing down opposition TV and radio stations, Chavez is also wasting billions of dollars on rifles and tanks from the old Soviet armory while millions of his people live in shocking squalor across Venezuela.
Chavez is further consolidating his control of Venezuela by arresting and jailing the few remaining opposition figures, judges and independent media owners who dare to criticize him.
This is classic dictatorship protocol: arrest the judges that can declare your actions illegal; take out the credible opposition so that no dissenting voices can be heard; and shut-down or take-over independent media outlets until you can create an iron wall of propaganda noise (i.e., the Big Lie) that you're a popular, loved leader working for the good of the nation.
This a sad picture indeed.
But not as sad as the United States' abandonment of Latin America. Since the 9/11 attack, American foreign policy has been focused almost exclusively on the Middle East and Central Asia. As a result, the U.S.' historical role in Latin America has waned.
Most of Latin America seeks to be the U.S.' strategic partner in the evolving world order. It is in our interest to fully engage, along the general lines of what President Kennedy once proposed:
"Therefore I have called on all people of the hemisphere to join in a new Alliance for Progress -- Alianza para Progreso -- a vast cooperative effort, unparalleled in magnitude and nobility of purpose to satisfy the basic needs of the American people for homes, work and land, health and schools - techo, trabajo y tierra, salud y escuela."
- John F. Kennedy, March 13, 1961
In contrast, the influence of Chavez and his band of retro-leftist cohorts, such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, that seek to remake the region into a Che Guevarra-inspired horror show, is most harshly felt by the people in those countries; and also by other Latin democracies struggling with serious social divisions and economic imbalances that threaten their fundamental stability.
Even as we see the Venezuelan people go through a tragic fall from one of the leading democracies on the continent into a petro-dictatorship, it is not just the direct threat of Chavez to American interests that we should worry about. We should also be concerned about the potential long-term impact of low U.S. engagement in the rest of the region.
We must first understand that the strategic vacuum left by the light presence of the U.S. in Latin America is being filled by some of our most capable global competitors.
Vladimir Putin, Russia's hard-line Prime Minister, has been a frequent visitor to Chavez's palace. Russia and Venezuela have deepened their strategic ties and have signed a series of deals for technology transfers, arms, and "cooperation".
Last year, the Russian and Venezuelan armed forces undertook joint military exercises in the Caribbean - whatever happened to the Monroe Doctrine?
China has also made the rounds in Latin America. They seek, and have been successful in securing, reliable supplies of myriad Latin American commodities to feed their export machine. They are also generous suppliers of credit and other development assistance that buy influence, create new relationships - and are fundamentally realigning historical trade and diplomatic relations.
And of course, the Iranians are heavily engaged with Chavez.
Holocaust-denier and fellow dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited Caracas several times and Chavez has paraded through Tehran as well. They too have announced a series of cooperation agreements including deepening military and economic ties.
And with Iran's documented exportation of terror into Latin America (Iranian agents were responsible for the attack on Israel's embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires back in the 1990's), Venezuela is Iran's ultimate forward base for that terror state's ambitions in Latin America.
While President Obama's agenda in undoubtedly crammed, it is note-worthy that he has not made a tour of Latin America. (To be fair, he did visit Mexico early in his Presidency.)
A high-profile, presidential visit to the region could help reset relations with the democratic republics of Latin America that are eager for deeper, mutually beneficial ties with the U.S., and support to resists the obnoxious pressure from Chavez and his gang.
It is time for the United States to once again play a leading role in Latin America. The U.S. should once more lead a regional coalition in support of democratic values and human rights.
It is also time for the U.S. to effectively help the isolated, harassed and demoralized opposition to Chavez. These dissidents seek liberty and real democracy - they are the future of Venezuela and we must stand with them.
In short, the U.S. must strive to play its historic role as Latin America's closest strategic ally - for the good of United States and for the benefit of all the peoples of this continent.
Follow Fernando Espuelas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/espuelasvox