WASHINGTON -- When Gen. Omar Halleslevens was installed Monday in Managua as chief of the Nicaraguan army, the U.S. government was represented by a mere major at the change-of-command ceremony. The slight was intentional. Halleslevens is regarded at the Pentagon as a hard-line Sandinista, whose rise to power represents profound problems in Latin America.
The Sandinistas, the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary party repeatedly rejected by Nicaraguan voters, are on the verge of accomplishing what U.S. officials call a "golpe technico" (technical coup), stripping President Enrique Bolanos of power. It is no isolated event restricted to a small Central American country. The Sandinistas have a rich and powerful ally in Hugo Chavez, the Marxist president of Venezuela.
Chavez has not only survived all Venezuelan challenges to his power but is making great strides in spreading his "Bolivarian Revolution" throughout the region. Besides the Nicaraguan connection, Chavez endangers shaky elected presidents in Peru and Ecuador and is aiming at unseating Bolivia's president, as he did his predecessor. At the same time, Colombia's conservative regime is busy staving off narco-guerrillas backed by Chavez. The Venezuelan is spreading his influence through Latin America more effectively than his friend and ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro, ever did.
George W. Bush, while preaching global democracy, clearly has his hands full in his own hemisphere but until now has ignored this deepening regional crisis. A few low-level officials in Washington have been ringing the warning bell in the night. The intentional slight at Monday's change-of-command ceremony was a small sign of success for them. After a spirited debate among middle-level Bush administration officials, an inter-agency meeting decided not to send anybody to an event that normally would be attended by a four-star U.S. officer, Gen. Bantz Craddock, the Miami-based Southern Command commander in chief. Protests from the U.S. Embassy in Managua resulted in a low-level U.S. Army officer being sent.
Elevating Halleslevens to command of the army suggests how completely the Sandinistas are back controlling Nicaragua. Chavez has taken two years to radicalize the Venezuelan army. Nicaragua never really purged the Sandinista influence from its military. The CIA has reported that Col. Halleslevens was in the party's inner circle 15 years ago as chief of the counter-intelligence directorate, funneling arms to foreign terrorists.
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