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By Wall Street Journal
Argentina has a debt crisis, guerrilla movements are growing in Colombia and Peru, and on Monday Venezuela was all but shut down because of a nationwide protest against the creeping dictatorship of President Hugo Chavez. The success story that was once Latin America is unraveling by the day, thanks in part to a lack of U.S. leadership.
Yet while Caracas burns, the top U.S. policy maker for the region can't assume his post for reasons of petty ideological revenge. Otto Reich--President Bush's nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere--still can't get a hearing in Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd's subcommittee. Mr. Dodd's petulance has gone beyond the usual Beltway payback and is now creating a leadership vacuum damaging to U.S. national security.
It's hard to recall reading today's headlines, but 10 years ago Latin America's future looked bright. Democracy was on the rise, economies were growing and the era of military coups seemed to be over. The countries did this mostly on their own, but U.S. leadership was crucial. The U.S. nurtured free-market economic ideas and helped against Marxist rebels.
That trend stopped during the 1990s, as the Clinton Administration mostly ignored the region for more glamorous priorities. The result today is a region threatened by repression, violence and economic decline.
In Colombia, Marxist guerrillas now control, and claim to own, a portion of the country as large as Switzerland. Any negotiations with the government, they maintain, are about who controls the rest of Colombia, and to prove it they launch terrorist strikes, kidnap or kill innocents and sabotage electricity and oil pipelines. The narcotics trade and guerrillas are both now spilling out of Colombia into Ecuador.
Shining Path terrorism is returning to the countryside in Peru, where the State Department has issued a travel warning to Americans. The triple border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina is home to a number of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist cells. In Argentina, the government is bankrupt, tariff barriers on consumer goods have been hiked to 35% and a bank run has triggered capital controls.
But nowhere have conditions deteriorated faster than in Venezuela under President Chavez, whose role model is Fidel Castro. Responding to Monday's nationwide strike, Mr. Chavez donned military fatigues as fighter planes roared overhead. "Now we will begin tightening the screws," he said. "Nothing stops this revolution." He has already passed laws that will allow him to confiscate private farmland, and on Tuesday Fidel himself paid a visit and praised his handiwork.
As for Central America, crime and kidnapping rings are chasing out foreign investment, the great hope of so many jobless poor. Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide--restored to power by Bill Clinton--behaves like a mafia don in his destitute nation, where critics of the government are murdered with impunity. The refugee exodus has resumed, with the U.S. Coast Guard reportedly intercepting more than 300 this month.
Despite anti-Yankee rhetoric for local consumption, Latin America has long relied on the U.S. for leadership. The region is in enough trouble now that if Secretary of State Colin Powell didn't have a war to worry about, he would have no choice but to make Latin America a priority. And the crisis explains why Messrs. Bush and Powell are both adamant in supporting Mr. Reich, a Cuban immigrant and former ambassador to Venezuela with a lifetime of experience and contacts in the region.
Mr. Dodd knows that Mr. Reich would be confirmed if he got to the Senate floor, which is why he wants to block even a hearing. He and Latin America aide Janice O'Connell bear a grudge against the Cuban-American going back to their days on opposite sides of the battle over Central America. But rather than face that difference squarely, Mr. Dodd's strategy has been to smear Mr. Reich's reputation, accusing him in a letter to this paper of, among other things, being soft on terrorism. U.S. officials say the public record refutes those charges, which may be why Mr. Dodd doesn't want Mr. Reich to get his chance to make his case in the Senate.
We keep wondering when Mr. Dodd's Democratic betters are going to call him to account for such behavior. It'd be nice to know, for example, how Florida Democrats Bob Graham and Bill Nelson feel about this treatment of a Cuban American. Tom Daschle recently met with Mr. Reich, but the majority leader has been reluctant to overrule his party's junior barons when they get the bit in their mouths.
Mr. Bush has the recourse of a recess appointment for Mr. Reich once the Senate leaves town. Given the worsening state of Latin America, and Mr. Dodd's irresponsibility, the President can justify such a move in the urgent national interest.