The Obama administration has ignored the very serious issues that threaten our national security in the Western Hemisphere for the past four years. The violations of human rights, constitutional order, suppression of democracy and increased relations with some of the most vile dictators in the world by the rogue regimes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the Castro brothers in Cuba, and Ecuador President Rafael Correa stands in direct opposition to the ideals of the American people.

One cannot detract from the ongoing crises facing the Middle East or growing concerns in North Africa, but this administration must realize that ignoring what is happening in our own hemisphere will only encourage other rogue regimes to increase their presence in Latin America and, in turn, threaten our national security and economic well-being. This administration has made clear that Latin America and the Caribbean are an afterthought by failing to take a proactive leadership role in the region and increase cooperation with responsible democratic nations.

This lack of leadership and attention to the region has allowed the likes of Iran and Syria to take a much more active role in the region, not only in a diplomatic and economic capacity, but also by creating a foothold for extremist organizations that openly target Americans and U.S. interests. The Obama administration must end its failed Latin American policies and seriously address the issues that the U.S. faces before it’s too late.

The administration’s approach of appeasement and engagement with brutal dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela has only emboldened their abuse and suppression of democracy and human rights. In Cuba, the administration has eased restrictions on travel and remittances as political detentions by the Castro’s forces dramatically rose in 2012 and will likely increase again in 2013. The Castro regime’s thugs have taken it a step further by brutally beating members of human rights opposition groups like the Ladies in White, and subjecting political prisoners to the most inhumane and unsanitary conditions imaginable.

These savage tactics have been the same playbook for Fidel’s protégé in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, where human rights and freedom of speech are under siege. For example, a constitutional crisis has ensued due to Chávez remaining in a Cuban hospital and unable to attend the inauguration on January 10 as mandated by the Venezuelan Constitution. The administration should seize this opportunity to demand freedom and transparency for the Venezuelan people, and not succumb to Chávez’s ploys to maintain power. It would be naïve to think that engaging a Chavista regime that openly facilitates the illicit narcotics trade, assists the Iranian and Syrian regimes and is a gross human rights violator will yield positive results.

Another extremely troubling issue has been the administration’s failure to adequately address Iran’s expansion into the Western Hemisphere. Over the last few years Tehran has increased its subversive actions and diplomatic and economic relations with radical regimes in Latin America. Last year, Ahmadinejad made two visits to the region in an attempt to gain support from like-minded tyrants, such as the Castros in Cuba, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Correa in Ecuador, Chávez in Venezuela, and Evo Morales in Bolivia. The administration has failed to produce sensible, effective policies to counter Iran’s influence in Latin America. We cannot allow the Iranian regime to parade around the region in direct defiance of responsible democracies in the region, exporting hate and violence to the brutal tyrannies of Venezuela, Cuba, and others in the region who seeks to subvert American ideals and suppress their populations.  

However, these actions, or inactions, are not limited to a few countries in the region. In Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia, the administration has extended the proverbial olive branch only to see no forthcoming changes in these establishment’s repressive and coercive policies. The harsh truth is that these despots would do anything to maintain their grip on power and will use any means at their disposal to do so. The administration must finally see the truth that these regimes will continue their nefarious ways as long as President Obama and his advisors fail to stand up to these dictators.

These failures by the administration will not stay in the Western Hemisphere. For every brutal act President Obama ignores, for every human right that is denied, the rest of the world will be watching and taking note. The failure to address these very real issues in our region will only embolden regimes elsewhere and diminish our standing abroad. It is our duty to provide strong leadership that will support our allies, defend our interests, and ensure that human rights and freedom are being respected. These goals can only be achieved through true democratic reforms and responsible rule of law and not through the appeasement of sadistic power-hungry tyrants who have held their nations hostage for so long.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican representing the 27th district in Florida, is Chairman Emeritus of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and current Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.

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