Democrats Shouldn’t Coddle Chávez

The prospect of a nuclear Venezuela should be enough to unite allegiances in Washington.

Hugo Chávez provoked nary a peep from the Bush administration when he recently welcomed Russian fighter jets to an air base in the state of Aragua. For a man desperate to prove his importance, nothing could have been more insulting than the yawn in Washington when the Russians touched down in Venezuela.

[The Americas] Jorge Enrique Botero/El Tiempo

Nancy Pelosi, Piedad Córdoba and Jim McGovern.

But the Venezuelan president will not be ignored and last week he tried again to command attention from someone, anyone, in Washington. This time he popped up at a local political rally to announce that Venezuela has accepted a Russian offer to build nuclear reactors in the socialist paradise.

Given the deterioration of the Venezuelan economy under Chávez management since 1999, it’s hard to take the chatty dictator seriously as an evil genius. The Bolivarian Revolution has not even been able to run 20th-century oil technology efficiently. Intelligence sources say that much of Venezuela’s military hardware is also suffering from neglect. Nevertheless, a nuclear threat in the region ought not be dismissed casually. Mr. Chávez is a great admirer of the mullahs in Iran and we know why they want nuclear “energy.”

Mary O’Grady tells Kelsey Hubbard how Democrats in Washington are sending mixed signals to Venezuela. (Oct. 6)

How the U.S. answers matters a lot. State Department rhetoric directed at Caracas would only give Mr. Chávez the spitting match he wants with “the empire” ahead of the country’s Nov. 23 gubernatorial elections. A more effective U.S. policy response would be a tripling of U.S. support for our staunchest ally in the region, Colombia, and a commitment to restoring a strong U.S. dollar.

Disillusion in Venezuela with the Bolivarian promise is growing. A corruption scandal involving an attempt to smuggle millions of dollars from the Venezuelan oil company into Buenos Aires for the campaign of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner is increasing the popular view that the oil wealth is being stolen by chavistas. Electric power outages have blanketed some 50% of the country over the past few months and the annual inflation rate is now 35%. It’s easy to see how, in fair elections, the chavistas could lose a number of key gubernatorial races. This is why Mr. Chávez is engaging in a military buildup and trying to pick fights with Washington.

[No wide]

The Americas in the News

Get the latest information in Spanish from The Wall Street Journal’s Americas page.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s neglect of the U.S. dollar is one reason Mr. Chávez has thus far gone unchallenged. As the dollar has headed south, oil prices have skyrocketed and a mediocre Latin populist has transformed himself into a roaring mouse. Last month Mr. Chávez announced that he would buy 24 K-8 aircraft from China to “train fighter pilots.” Jane’s reports that total orders for Russian weaponry now top $4 billion. As documents captured in March from the rebel group FARC — aka the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — revealed, Mr. Chávez has also used his windfall of petrodollars to support terrorism.

Even if Mr. Paulson were to figure out the link between the weak dollar and oil dictators around the world, a greenback reversal would take time. The strongest immediate signal the U.S. could send Mr. Chávez and Latin American democracies is unequivocal support for Colombia. President Bush has tried to do that but the effort is being undermined by Congressional Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has refused to allow a vote on the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, sending a message to Bogotá and any would-be friends in the region that we are unreliable. But trifling with Colombia-U.S. trade is only part of a larger outrage. The Democrats also are playing footsie with Mr. Chávez, as the nearby photo — with the two women dressed in matching chavista red — taken in Washington a year ago indicates.

Left-wing Colombian Sen. Piedad Córdoba is a close friend of Mr. Chávez and a frequent visitor to the Venezuelan presidential palace. She is also trusted by the FARC and is often photographed with its leaders. Her political activities among the rebels have provoked so many questions in Colombia that the government has launched an investigation into her FARC ties.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern’s name is all over the captured FARC documents and when a Wall Street Journal editorial reported as much in March, the Massachusetts Democrat didn’t deny it. But he howled in protest when this column reported that the FARC leaders wrote that Mrs. Pelosi had “designated” him to work on hostage negotiations. The FARC also expressed faith in Mrs. Pelosi as someone who “helps” in its effort to undermine Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Mr. McGovern said in a letter to this newspaper that the FARC was engaging in fantasy. But maybe instead the rebels put their faith in Mrs. Pelosi because they perceive a common friend in the radicalized Ms. Córdoba, who can do their bidding in Washington.

If Mr. Chávez thinks he can go nuclear with no consequences it is because he understands the divided allegiances in Washington. One way to solve that problem would be for Democrats to come out and say whose side they are on.

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