The Chávez Democrats

What is it about Democrats and Hugo Chávez? Even as the Venezuelan strongman was threatening war last week against Colombia, Congress was threatening to hand him a huge strategic victory by spurning Colombia’s free trade overtures to the U.S.

This isn’t the first time Democrats have come to Mr. Chávez’s aid, but it would be the most destructive. The Venezuelan is engaged in a high-stakes competition over the political and economic direction of Latin America. He wants the region to follow his path of ever greater state control of the economy, while assisting U.S. enemies wherever he can. He’s already won converts in Bolivia and Ecuador, and he came far too close for American comfort in Mexico’s election last year.

Meanwhile, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is embracing greater economic and political freedom. He has bravely assisted the U.S fight against narco-traffickers, and he now wants to link his country more closely to America with a free-trade accord. As a strategic matter, to reject Colombia’s offer now would tell everyone in Latin America that it is far more dangerous to trust America than it is to trash it.

[Hugo Chavez]

Yet Democrats on Capitol Hill are doing their best to help Mr. Chávez prevail against Mr. Uribe. Even as Mr. Chávez was doing his war dance, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus was warning the White House not to send the Colombia deal to the Hill for a vote without the permission of Democratic leaders. He was seconded by Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, who told Congress Daily that “they don’t have the votes for it, it’s not going to come on the floor,” adding that “what they [the White House] don’t understand it’s not the facts on the ground, it’s the politics that’s in the air.”

Mr. Rangel is right about the politics. No matter what U.S. strategic interests may be in Colombia, this is an election year in America. And Democrats don’t want to upset their union and anti-trade allies. The problem is that the time available to pass anything this year is growing short. The closer the election gets, the more leverage protectionists have to run out the clock on the Bush Presidency. The deal has the support of a bipartisan majority in the Senate, and probably also in the House. Sooner or later the White House will have to force the issue.

[Nancy Pelosi]

Our guess is that Messrs. Baucus and Rangel understand the stakes and privately favor the accord. The bottleneck is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is refusing to allow a vote under pressure from her left-wing Members. These Democrats deride any link between Hugo Chávez and trade as a “scare tactic,” as if greater economic prosperity had no political consequences. “President Bush’s recent fear-mongering on trade shows just how desperate he is to deliver one final victory for multinational corporations,” declared Illinois Democrat Phil Hare, who is one of Ms. Pelosi’s main trade policy deputies.

These are the same Democrats who preach the virtues of “soft power” and diplomacy, while deriding Mr. Bush for being too quick to use military force. But trade is a classic form of soft power that would expand U.S. and Latin ties in a web of commercial interests. More than 8,000 U.S. companies currently export to Colombia, nearly 85% of which are small and medium-sized firms. Colombia is already the largest South American market for U.S. farm products, and the pact would open Colombia to new competition and entrepreneurship.

Which brings us back to Mr. Chávez and his many Democratic friends. Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd’s early support helped the strongman consolidate his power. Former President Jimmy Carter blessed Mr. Chávez’s August 2004 recall victory, despite evidence of fraud. And then there are the many House Democrats, current and former, who have accepted discount oil from Venezuela and then distributed it in the U.S. to boost their own political fortunes. Joseph P. Kennedy II and Massachusetts Congressman Bill Delahunt have been especially cozy with Venezuela’s oil company. If Democrats spurn free trade with Colombia, these Democratic ties with Mr. Chávez will deserve more political scrutiny.

Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both competing for union support. But if they wanted to demonstrate their own Presidential qualities, they’d be privately telling Ms. Pelosi to pass the Colombia pact while Mr. Bush is still in office. That would spare either one of them from having to spend political capital to pass it next year.

Instead, both say they oppose the deal on grounds that Mr. Uribe has not done more to protect “trade unionists.” In fact, Mr. Uribe has done more to reduce violence in Colombia than any modern leader in Bogotá. The real question for Democrats is whether they’re going to choose Colombia — or Hugo Chávez.

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