WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Official Washington has the attention span of a fruit fly. A "crisis d'jour" momentarily captures the attention of the so-called mainstream media, politicians and government bureaucrats. For a few days -- occasionally for a few weeks -- the potentates on the Potomac will focus on "the problem," hold hearings, introduce some legislation, devise a way to spend more of our tax dollars, initiate an "investigation" -- and move on when they are "shocked," "stunned," and/or "surprised" by the next catastrophe or scandal. Like a pan of soup on a hot stove, no one seems witting, willing or able to turn down the heat until the pot boils over.
Bush administration officials and lawmakers, preoccupied with leak and lobbying investigations, the Alito confirmation hearings, a mining disaster and the war in Iraq seem oblivious to what is happening south of the Rio Grande. Absent the urgent attention of some astute officials in our nation's capital, the Latin-American pressure cooker won't just boil over -- it will explode.
Most Americans see the burgeoning crisis to our south as simply a problem of illegal immigration. Reflecting that sentiment, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to strengthen border enforcement before going home for Christmas. This week, most Latin American diplomats lined up to condemn the proposal. Mexico's Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez called it "stupid and underhanded." Few in Washington paid any attention.
In fact, the flow of illegals across our southern border will only get worse if Washington continues to ignore the tell-tale warnings coming from the region. The most recent "leading indicators" of political turmoil:
The Dec. 18 election of socialist-cocoa grower Evo Morales as president of Bolivia was hailed in the European and Latin press as a great victory for "democracy." In fact, Morales' campaign for office closely paralleled the America-bashing tactics used so successfully by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
Promising to become Washington's "nightmare," Morales is now on a global "victory lap," that began -- appropriately -- in Cuba. On arrival in Havana aboard one of Castro's private aircrafts, the Bolivian told an obediently cheering crowd: "I dreamt of joining the anti-imperialist struggle of Fidel and the Cuban people."
Morales, 46, then jaunted off to Caracas for a love fest with the equally militant Hugo Chavez, who pledged to invest $30 million to develop Bolivia's considerable natural gas reserves and strengthen socialist domestic programs. The Bolivian head of state then set out for Beijing, where he stood beside communist-Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People and described his hosts as the "political, ideological and programmatic ally of the Bolivian people." Morales pledged cooperation with Beijing, which wants access to the country's gas reserves, making Bolivia the latest in a string of nations in our hemisphere to turn away from Washington and head East.
Not to be out-shone by his pupil, Chavez himself made news. Making good on his promise to ship discounted home heating oil to "Americans made poor by Bush" -- Venezuela's state-owned oil company -- Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. delivered another shipload of a promised 25-million gallons of fuel to New England. The gesture received far more publicity than his endorsement of Iran's decision to resume refining nuclear material that could be used for weapons production.
Chavez -- awash in American petro-dollars -- has not only sought closer relations with Tehran and Beijing -- but is now actively supporting the cause of any anti-U.S. movement he can find in the southern hemisphere -- not a tough task in a region where 61 percent of the people harbor anti-American sentiment. In Nicaragua, Chavez has found a kindred spirit in ousted Marxist dictator, Daniel Ortega. If the well-oiled Chavez money machine isn't deterred, Caracas could well buy the next president in Managua. If that happens, expect the tsunami of economic and political refugees across our southern border to continue rising.
The "Chavez problem," the Morales promise to promote cocoa harvesting, the growing Iranian and Chinese influence to our south, the potential collapse of democracy and free enterprise in Central America -- all argue for immediate attention from Washington's distracted policy makers. None of these conditions are intractable -- yet. By far, the easiest "fix" is to focus on the upcoming elections in Nicaragua -- and help the real forces for democracy to flourish in the elections this fall. It could prove to be the first step in reversing a decade-long decline in U.S. influence -- and help prevent the "next crisis" from overwhelming our southern border.