An Ugly Handshake with Hugo Chavez

Mona Charen

4/21/2009 12:01:00 AM - Mona Charen

In one photo, President Obama is grinning as he clasps Hugo Chavez by the hand. In another, he grasps Chavez warmly by the shoulder. Those pictures disgusted several members of Congress. Some said so on national television.

Responding to criticism of this encounter, the president was by turns cavalier and obtuse. About the left-wing rant of a book Chavez gave him, Obama said mildly, "It was a nice gesture to give me a book. I'm a reader." Regarding the smiling greeting to an oil-rich, America hating, opposition silencing, drug smuggling Castro acolyte, Obama asserted, "We had this debate throughout the campaign. This whole notion that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments previously hostile that we were soft. Only the American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it. Because it didn't make sense."

Isn't it the case that some leaders, by their dangerous and destructive actions, forfeit the right to warm greetings? Is there anyone Obama would decline to exchange friendly greetings with at a diplomatic encounter? How about Robert Mugabe? Kim Jong Il? Chavez's close friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? If Barack Obama had been president in 1977, would he have shaken Pol Pot's hand? Chavez is not Pol Pot, of course. Nor even as evil as Ahmadinejad. Yet. But despite his sometimes clownish behavior, Chavez is more Mussolini than Charlie Chaplin.

Obama further justified his "courtesy" toward Chavez by observing that Venezuela's "defense budget is probably 1/600th of the U.S. They own Citgo. It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

This is proving to be one of Obama's favorite straw men (and he has so many!). He said something very similar about Iran during the campaign. But no one is suggesting that shaking hands with Chavez endangers national security. And no sensible person believes that it is only through building militaries to rival our own that nations can be threatening to their neighbors, to us and to the world.

It was Obama himself who noted soon after his election that Chavez is providing support to the narco-terrorist group FARC in neighboring Colombia. FARC has conducted a reign of terror in Colombia and also plays a major role in funneling drugs to the United States. In the past decade since coming to power, Chavez has obstructed all U.S. efforts to fight drug traffickers, banned overflights by Drug Enforcement Agency aircraft and provided safe haven for FARC leaders. According to U.S. News and World Report, "It is no coincidence that during Chavez's presidency, Venezuela has turned into a major conduit for the transshipment of cocaine. Despite FARC's killing of thousands of civilians and its continued holding of 700 hostages, among them Venezuelans, the oil-rich Chavez government confessed its direct support for and solidarity with the region's most notorious terrorist group."

Chavez is mimicking his hero Castro in other ways. In his jails you can find people whose only crime was to oppose the regime. Humberto Quintero was arrested in 2005 for capturing a senior FARC leader. Francisco Uson was sentenced to five and a half years for making public comments about human rights violations in Venezuela. Opposition television stations have lost their licenses, and opposition newspapers have been closed.

Chavez is also leading, directing and encouraging state-sponsored harassment of Venezuela's tiny Jewish community. Venezuela has a 200-year history of benevolent treatment of its Jewish minority. Chavez has changed all that and aroused real fear. Synagogues have been attacked, desecrated and vandalized, their buildings spray painted with epithets like "Death to Israel. Get out Jews." Half the Jewish population has fled since Chavez came to power.

During the war between Israel and Hamas last year, government media outlets maintained a steady campaign of vituperation against Israel and against the Jews of Venezuela. A government newspaper suggested confiscating the property of Venezuelan Jews who supported Israel and distributing it to Palestinians, denouncing Venezuelan Jews in public, and boycotting Jewish-owned businesses. The Cardinal of Venezuela, Jorge Urosa, has been outspoken on behalf of Venezuela's Jews, as was the Papal Nuncio, who last year had a hand grenade lobbed onto his property for his trouble.

All of that should have been in President Obama's mind before he extended that friendly grin and handshake. It's not that he endangered national security. Rather, he diminished his own moral standing and, by extension, ours.