Brazil's socialist president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, recently granted asylum to Lucio Gutierrez, Ecuador's third head of state deposed in eight years amid charges of corruption. Da Silva also denies persistent reports of radical Islamic groups recruiting and training in the remote Brazil-Argentina-Paraguay tri-border region.
El Salvador's internal economic and political disarray has led to gunfire in the hills, abandoned farms and businesses, and dismayed foreign investors. Gangs spawned in El Salvador's chaos have now become a major source of violent crime in the United States.
Colombia's indomitable, steel-spined president, Alvaro Uribe, is increasingly threatened by narco-terrorists who find safe haven and covert support in neighboring Venezuela while they wait for "Plan Colombia" aid to expire next year.
Nicaragua's pro-U.S. president, Enrique Bolanos, has lost control of the Sandinista-dominated military. Daniel Ortega -- with well-hidden support from "allies" in Caracas -- may well win the presidency in next year's elections.
Cuba's decrepit despot Fidel Castro, once Moscow's illegitimate stepchild, has banned U.S. currency from his island "paradise" and gained a new benefactor, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's oil-rich, leftist "president." While Rice was visiting the neighborhood, Chavez was in Havana, inaugurating a "barter economy" in which Cuba will trade doctors and teachers for Venezuelan oil and consumer goods.
Thanks to near-record petroleum prices, Venezuela -- the world's No. 5 oil-exporter -- has become the engine of anti-Americanism in the hemisphere. Though many believe his 1998 "election" was rigged, Chavez has consolidated power by outlawing opposition parties, severely limiting the press and restricting free speech. His move to nationalize the oil industry was a populist coup, and he now talks of a Latin American Exclusive Trade Zone and a multinational "Bolivarian Army" to counterbalance "U.S. economic and military imperialism."
Last week, Chavez ousted the last five U.S. military advisors from a program that had been in place for 35 years -- claiming that the Americans were "waging a campaign in the Venezuelan military ... criticizing the president." American petro-dollars have enabled Chavez to buy advanced Russian fighters, lethal helicopter gunships and 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles, and entertain arms talks with Iran and communist China.
Though serious, today's Latin America situation isn't as grave as it was in the early 1980s. Challenged by a flood of refugees, rising anti-Americanism, Soviet meddling, a growing security threat and a hostile Congress, President Reagan acted to change the internal and external dynamics.
First, he appointed Dr. Henry Kissinger to head a bipartisan Commission on Central America and tasked the panel -- which included members of both houses of Congress -- with building a strategic consensus on what needed to be done to assure a democratic outcome in the region. He also dispatched the vice president on a secret mission to confront El Salvador's rebellious military officers when they threatened to postpone elections. The combined effects of the vice president's courage and the short-lived political accord built through the work of the Kissinger Commission was a dramatic victory for liberty and free enterprise in Central America.
Before things get worse in Latin America, President Bush should consider trying this formula again. Our leverage may be different than it was in the 1980s -- but the tools are the same: a presidential commission and a brave vice president. And he can always consult with the man who walked into the lion's den in El Salvador -- his dad.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.