WASHINGTON, DC -- Now for the bad news. Two weeks ago, the mainstream media were chasing after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her whirlwind debutante tour of Europe, commenting on her elegant ensembles and disarming smile. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez was accusing the United States of trying to assassinate him.
This week, the potentates of the press were mused over President Bush's efforts to melt the iciest of 'Old European' hearts. But within four hours of Florida, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega -- still the head of the communist-inspired Sandinista Party -- was endorsing Chavez' call for the creation of a "Bolivarian Army" -- comprised of soldiers from "like minded nations" throughout Latin America. Such an armed force would "protect these countries" from "U.S. imperialism."
Compared to Russia's intent to supply the radicals in Tehran with nuclear material and know-how, the rabid babble emanating from our back yard may seem a minor annoyance -- kind of like the neighbor's dog barking in the night. And it would be just about as threatening, but for one thing: The radicals to our south have found a wealthy new benefactor, the revolutionary Chavez.
With oil selling at near record prices, the elected Venezuelan head of state, and new darling of the radical left, is rolling in American petro-dollars. While the Bush administration has been preoccupied by its "New European Initiative," Chavez -- often seen sporting his Castro-style uniform -- has been taking every advantage of the distraction. And, apparently, he is willing to put his money where his mouth is.
With his new-found oil wealth, Chavez has offered to arm the new "Bolivarian Army" with weapons from communist China and, of all places, Iran. In a little-noticed speech this week at the Organization for American States (OAS), Ali Rodriguez, the Venezuelan foreign minister, denounced the United States and echoed Chavez' claims that the Bush administration has authorized the assassination of the Venezuelan president.
According to sources in Nicaragua, Chavez is using his fortune to finance Sandinista chieftain Daniel Ortega's political ambitions. One frustrated member of the legislature in Managua told me that "Chavez is Ortega's 'numero uno' financial benefactor."
Meanwhile, Alvaro Uribe, the pro-American president of Colombia, is increasingly concerned about the military support and sanctuary that the Chavez regime is offering to FARC narco-terrorists. Thus far, all of these concerns seem to have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.
One of the problems of being a super-power is that the role brings with it many responsibilities -- and many adversaries. It also requires a deftness and flexibility for dealing with unexpected challenges. The Bush administration demonstrated those skills in its response to the attack on 9-11. Though more protracted and far less "popular," the president's policy in Iraq seems headed in the right direction -- thanks to the courage, dexterity and perseverance of our armed forces.
In his European venture, President Bush is wise to do what he can to ease the prospect of another "Islamic Nuclear Power" in Tehran. It's even possible -- though unlikely -- that he can dissuade Vladimir Putin from selling nuclear technology to the Iranians. If there is truth to the rumor that the Russians are providing their nuclear know-how to Tehran in exchange for Iranian "help" in Chechnya, then the transfer will take place no matter what Putin promises.
But no matter what the outcome in Europe, regardless of how the administration deals with North Korea's nuclear ambitions, they cannot ignore the growing storm south of our border. As one retired intelligence officer, an expert on Latin America, told me this week, "If they think they have a problem with illegal immigration today, wait until the Castro-Chavez-Ortega 'Axis of Evil' gets done destabilizing this hemisphere."
His ominous warning seems to be timely. Last year, there were more than 1.1 million illegal aliens detained crossing the Mexican border into the United States. Several million more made it past our overworked Border Patrol. But of greater concern is the fact that apprehensions of non-Mexican illegals rose 40 percent above 2003 levels.
History ought to be an indicator of what's happening. When Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, more than 20 percent of the island's population fled. Between 1979, when the Sandinistas marched into Managua, and 1990, when they were finally voted out of power, nearly 25 percent of Nicaragua's population became refugees. Ignoring the realities of what's happening today in Latin America invites a tidal wave of refugees fleeing north.
In the 1980s, the threat to our south originated with Soviet-inspired and financed communism. Castro's minions aided and abetted the effort -- as did most of the Soviet satellites. Today, it's coming from a virulently anti-American, well-financed regime in Caracas -- but it is no less of a threat to the United States or to other democracies in the region.
The effectiveness of Chavez' anti-American campaign is increasingly evident in places where it should never take hold. In Managua, President Enrique Bolanos has lost control over Nicaragua's Sandinista-controlled military. His promise to destroy their stockpile of Soviet-made SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, capable of bringing down a commercial airliner, has yet to be fulfilled. That may not be much when compared to the threat of an Iranian or North Korean nuclear weapon, but that will be scant comfort to the passengers on the U.S. airliner brought down by one of the surface-to-air missiles.
All of this begs for the Bush administration to put away the mementos of their European trip and start paying attention to what's going on in our hemisphere.