Oliver North

 This week at the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth, dubbed "Against Imperialism and War," the Venezuelan strong-man called the U.S. the "most savage, cruel and murderous empire that has existed in the history of the world." Later in his lengthy diatribe, Chavez expressed his support for Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying he expects to continue strengthening relations and that Venezuela, like Iran, is a country that has been "attacked" for many years by "the hand of imperialism."

 After telling the 15,000 young people assembled at Venezuela's Central Military Headquarters that "socialism is the only path," Mr. Chavez told the students their collective goal should be to "save a world threatened by the voracity of U.S. imperialism." According to the new Telesur Network, the students "celebrated by waving flags, dancing in traditional dress and wearing berets commemorating Ernesto 'Che' Guevara."

 Though the whole scene was reminiscent of Fidel Castro's finest moments, not everyone is laughing at Chavez's flair for the dramatic. U.S. defense experts note that the Venezuelan military hardware spending spree is largely funded with petro-dollars and that at $60-plus per barrel, there is no shortage of cash in Caracas. At the U.S. Southern Command Headquarters, there seems to be little amusement in the Chavez regime's new-found affection for communist China and Iran. And in Managua, supporters of Nicaraguan democracy and free enterprise are deeply concerned for the support -- political and financial -- that the Venezuelan tyrant is providing to Daniel Ortega.

 The Chavez "Bolivarian Revolution" has become a confusing stew pot of rhetoric and repression. He has alienated his main trading partners; transformed a once professional diplomatic service into a socialist cheering squad; and has purged political dissidents while providing material support for terrorists. His threats to slow or cease oil exports to the U.S. may seem hollow to some, but others remind us that Venezuela produces more than 16 percent of the crude oil we consume. A quick trip to the gas pump -- and the prospect of a cold winter -- should suffice to focus the attention.

 Come November, the press may look back at the Bush-Uribe meeting in Crawford and the cemented U.S.-Colombian partnership as their lost opportunity to document an important milestone in U.S.-South American relations. By then the western hemisphere's leaders will be gathered for the Summit of the Americas in Buenos Aires. The Argentine summit will be a great opportunity for the Bush administration to enlist serious help from our South American neighbors in the war on terror and the administration's passage last month of the Central American Free Trade Act (CAFTA).

 How important is this platform for western hemisphere cooperation? Important enough that the secretary of state has shaken up her starting roster for Latin American foreign policy. Ever since Sept. 11, U.S. diplomatic efforts south of the Rio Grande have been eclipsed by events in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Petty tyrants like Chavez have capitalized on our inattention, fomenting discontent, abusing human rights and creating uncertainty about American resolve. Hopefully that will change with the arrival of Tom Shannon, a close colleague of Secretary Rice from her days on the National Security Council staff at the White House. It's high time that our own hemisphere was back on the radar screen.

Oliver North

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.