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Congressman Dan Burton: Don't Threaten Chavez

Jason Barnes,

Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005 -- WASHINGTON -- Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) has his own addendum to the foreign policy doctrine of Teddy Roosevelt. When it comes to the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, Burton says he believes in speaking softy and carrying a big stick. But first, he says, "I believe in talking."

Burton offered his views on Chavez and the growing threat to democracy across the region to a gathering of Latin American diplomats and journalists Tuesday at the Hudson Institute, one of the nation's most influential think tanks.

Congressman Burton's views carry some weight. He is chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, a veteran of the democratization process in Latin America, and a staunch Reagan conservative.

Chavez, a former Army colonel who turned failed-coup leader, was first elected Venezuela's president in a fair democratic election in 1999.

His critics charge that since assuming power he has systematically sought to undermine democracy, Venezuela's constitution and its once free press.

Others also claim he has allegedly used Venezuelan oil money to destabilize the democratically-elected administrations of neighboring countries, most notably Colombia, where Chavez is said to support FARC, a narco-terrorist organization, with cash and weapons.

But his relationship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has been the most worrisome.

Burton said he is concerned about these allegations and wants to ensure Latin America continues its democratic transformation.

To that end, Burton believes the United States should begin a dialogue with Chavez.

But, Burton says we must be stern. "We must let Mr. Chavez know that there will be a price to pay if we see fledgling democracies start going down because of oil money ... that is being utilized to undermine those governments."

Burton declined to specifically enumerate what that "price" will be.

"It is irresponsible," he told NewsMax, "when you're trying to open dialogue with a leader like Mr. Chavez, to start utilizing threats and being specific about what measures might be taken if the appearance is that there is an attempt to change the democratically-elected administrations of surrounding countries."

Stephen Johnson, an expert on Latin America at the Heritage Foundation, has an idea that falls short of economic sanctions.

He argues the United States government should "challenge Chavez to produce the kind of prosperity and freedom that people enjoy in democratic countries that allows people and countries to become prosperous."

"Venezuela," Johnson says, "is not prosperous. It has a high GDP but that does not translate into jobs, and it doesn't translate into people above the poverty line. In fact, since Chavez has come to power, Venezuelans have gotten poorer."

However, both Burton and Johnson admit the situation is complicated by Venezuela's vast oil wealth. "It's a little more difficult," Burton says, "because (Chavez) has $100 million coming in from oil every day, $60 million from the United States."

Burton's concerns are more than altruistic.

While he sympathizes with the plight of the average Latin American citizen faced with the prospect of a crumbling democracy, he is just as concerned about the effect of a failed democracy on the United States.

"We ignore Central and South America at our own peril," he says ominously. "If we have a revolution or a failed democracy and we have a totalitarian government or anarchy take its place, those people who can are going to leave. And where do you thing they're going to go? They're coming here, and it's going to create a bigger immigration problem for the United States." Bold added by A. Boyd

Burton is also careful to point out that his call for dialogue is not a sign of weakness.

"No one," he says, "should perceive our attempt to have a dialogue with Mr. Chavez as a sign of weakness. It is not. It is only a sign that we want to solve these problems in a peaceful and equitable way."

Finally, Burton says the United States must abandon the perception that it can act as a big brother to its smaller Latin American neighbors, always telling them what to do and how to do it.

Instead, he says we must be seen as a "working partner with our friends and neighbors in the Caribbean and Central and South America."

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