A day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez won re-election, vowing to entrench the country deeper into socialism, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said the Obama administration has done little to stop leaders such as Chávez from growing stronger and expanding their anti-democratic influence beyond their national borders.
In a foreign policy speech that focused largely on the Middle East, Romney portrayed President Obama of being too passive in the face of some world leaders who threaten U.S. national security as well as the security of other nations.
“There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East—and it is not unique to that region,” Romney said, in what his campaign had dubbed as a major foreign policy speech, at Virginia Military Institute.
“It is broadly felt by America’s friends and allies in other parts of the world as well— in Europe, where Putin’s Russia casts a long shadow over young democracies, and where our oldest allies have been told we are ‘pivoting’ away from them … in Asia and across the Pacific, where China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region,” Romney said, “and here in our own hemisphere, where our neighbors in Latin America want to resist the failed ideology of Hugo Chávez and the Castro brothers and deepen ties with the United States on trade, energy, and security.”
“But in all of these places, just as in the Middle East, the question is asked: ‘Where does America stand?’”
On Sunday, Hugo Chávez won a third six-year term, with 90 percent of the votes showing that he received 54 percent, to 45 percent for his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, according to the national election council.
Polls had at times showed Capriles in the lead, albeit with a close margin.
Chávez, who early in his tenure as president of Venezuela had held up Cuba’s political system as a model he desired to emulate in his South American nation, often has lashed out at the United States as a ruthless empire and has insulted U.S. presidents.
Our neighbors in Latin America want to resist the failed ideology of Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers and deepen ties with the United States.
- Mitt Romney, Republican presidential nominee
Chávez took verbal shots at Romney during his own presidential campaign, comparing his opponent to the GOP nominee. In a campaign speech in July, Chávez equated Capriles' agenda with that of Romney's, saying both men represent the callously selfish capitalist elite.
He said that like Romney, Capriles, a moderate former governor, was trying to trick Venezuelans into believing he genuinely cares about the poor, the core of the Venezuelan president's constituency.
"I believe the person to best explain the loser's agenda isn't Barack Obama but rather Romney, because it's the extreme right-wing agenda that borders on the fascism of the United States," Chávez told tens of thousands of supporters in the western city of Maracaibo.
But of more concern to some political leaders in the United States than Chávez’s headline-grabbing insults are his close alliances with such people as Fidel and Raul Castro of Cuba, helping their nation with oil and, in return, getting consultations on national defense, social policy, government structure, among other things.
Leftist leaders in the Western Hemisphere, including Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Raúl Castro in Cuba, congratulated Chávez on his win, depicting it as a boost to socialism in the region.
Chávez also has formed a tight bond between Iran and Venezuela, presiding jointly with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the signing of about a dozen agreements between the two countries pledging cooperation in a number of areas, including oil, natural gas, and trade.
Both presidents denounced U.S. "imperialism" in a joint appearance on the agreements, and said their opponents will not be able to impede cooperation between Iran and Venezuela.
Iran's state TV quoted both Ahmadinejad and Chávez as calling their relationship a "strategic alliance" that would eliminate the current global order.
In the summer, Romney criticized Obama for downplaying the threat posed by Chávez and his deepening ties to Iran.
Obama said his "overall sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the past several years has not had a serious national security impact on us."
Romney responded by saying it was "simply naive" to think Chávez does not pose a threat to the United States.
“This is Chávez who champions the Bolivarian Revolution movement,” he said, “and is spreading dictatorships and tyranny throughout Latin America.”
The Obama campaign dismissed Romney's Monday address as a rehashed attempt to fix past blunders.
"We are not going to be lectured by someone who's been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he sticks his toe in the foreign policy waters," campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. The campaign prepared a TV ad calling Romney "reckless" and "amateurish" on foreign policy questions.
Obama's aides also insisted Romney's speech included few specifics that were markedly different from the president's own record.
In the summer, the Obama campaign called Romney's criticism of Obama as weak on foreign policy an attempt "to score cheap political points by blustering and misrepresenting the President’s record while failing to outline any coherent foreign policy strategy.”
“Because of President Obama’s leadership, our position in the Americas is much stronger today than before he took office," said a statement by campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt. "At the same time, Hugo Chávez has become increasingly marginalized and his influence has waned. It’s baffling that Mitt Romney is so scared of a leader like Chávez whose power is fading, while Romney continues to remain silent about how to confront al-Qaeda or how to bring our troops home from Afghanistan."
Romney supporters and fellow Republicans have advanced his campaign message that Obama has been too soft on Chávez, downplaying the threat he poses.
On Monday, following Romney’s foreign affairs speech, his campaign released a statement by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, saying: "Americans need to ask themselves: what does it say about President Obama's weakness on foreign policy matters that our allies like Israel openly express frustration with him, while our enemies like Hugo Chávez openly endorse his reelection? “
“The truth is that in every corner of the world, President Obama's foreign policy has been a failure,” said Rubio, who is the son of Cuban immigrants. “He failed to improve America's standing in the world, because he doesn't understand America's exceptional role in the world. Mitt Romney understands that the world is safer when America is stronger, and he'll pursue a clear and unequivocal foreign policy based on peace through strength."
In his speech, Romney proposed the United States take a more assertive role in Syria, put conditions on aid to Egypt and tighten sanctions on Iran.
Declaring that "it's time to change course in the Middle East" and accusing Obama of "passivity," Romney called on the United States to work with other countries to arm rebels in Syria with weapons that can defeat the "tanks, helicopters and fighter jets" that make up President Bashar Assad's army.
Romney's attempt to outline his approach as commander in chief comes amid turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. Iran is believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapon, Syria is locked in a civil war, peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are moribund, and anti-American protests have erupted in several countries. Attackers linked to al-Qaida killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last month, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Obama's administration still seeks a peaceful political transition, even though the president acknowledged in August that the likelihood of a soft landing for Syria's civil war "seems pretty distant."
Obama called on Assad to step down more than a year ago and has sought consensus at the United Nations on a diplomatic power-transfer plan, but has been stymied repeatedly by Russia and China. Obama has stepped up U.S. humanitarian aid and nonlethal assistance, now at a combined $175 million, to the political opposition.
But he has opposed directly providing weapons to the rebels or using U.S. air power to prevent Syrian jets from flying.
The administration says U.S. arms assistance would further militarize Syria and make it even harder to stabilize the country after Assad's downfall, which it insists is inevitable. And it says it still doesn't know the different fighting groups well enough to provide them guns, considering the small but growing influence of Islamist extremists among their ranks.
This story contains material from The Associated Press.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente