Tom Pauken 
Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission
"Fixing" A Failed Foreign Policy in Latin America

Philadelphia Society Regional Meeting
San Antonio, Texas
October 11, 2008

When I served on the transition team of President-elect Ronald Reagan prior to his inauguration on January 20th, 1981, the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador were poised to capture yet another country in Central America. The Sandinistas already had control of Nicaragua, and President Carter’s disastrous foreign policy in Latin America had set up El Salvador as the next nation likely to fall to the Communists. Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador to El Salvador at the time, Robert White, was harshly critical of the anti-Communist government of that nation while sympathetic to the leftist guerrilla forces in El Salvador. The Communists in El Salvador mounted a major effort to seize control of that country prior to Ronald Reagan being sworn into office as President of the United States. Fortunately, their efforts were unsuccessful.

From day one, President Reagan shored up the anti-Communist government of El Salvador. And, that nation remained free – thanks to a Reagan foreign policy in Latin America which was part of an overall strategy to reduce communist influence worldwide. Leftist regimes across the globe were in retreat throughout the Reagan years as the President put in place a policy to win the Cold War – a victory achieved, by the way, with hardly a shot being fired by American forces and very little loss of American lives. In fact, U.S. military intervention in Grenada to rescue American medical students and overthrow the Marxist regime of Maurice Bishop was one of the very few instances in which our military forces were deployed in furtherance of our Cold War strategy. Instead of U.S. direct military intervention abroad, we provided assistance and support to various anti-Communist forces in critical battleground regions and helped indigenous forces take their countries back from the Communists themselves. By the time Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, we had won the Cold War, and the Left was in retreat throughout Latin America, with Fidel Castro increasingly isolated on his Communist island of Cuba.

Fast forward to the present. We have had eight years of an ostensible Republican Administration headed up by George W. Bush. The results aren’t pretty.

On the domestic scene, the Bush Administration failed to act in time to stem the credit and spending excesses of our “bubble economy.” While those excesses started during the Clinton years as a result of bad decisions made by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the Bush Administration did nothing to reverse those flawed policies. Now, we are paying a heavy economic price for postponing action to deal with what turned out to be a slow moving train wreck. The Clinton and Bush administrations also made major mistakes in dealing with the strategic threat of militant Islam. And, when it comes to Latin America, our incoherent and thoughtless policy in that region has allowed for the rise to power of a whole new batch of would-be Fidel Castros throughout the Western Hemisphere. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we even have witnessed the return to power of the discredited Sandinista forces, led by that rather swarmy figure on the Left, Daniel Ortega.

The Bush Administration has squandered the political capital built-up over three decades of hard work by the Goldwater-Reagan movement, doing great damage to the conservative movement, the Republican party, and our country in the process. That capital is depleted, and we conservatives have to start all over in putting together a set of principled policies to address the enormous economic, foreign policy, and cultural challenges we face.

My topic this afternoon focuses on the dangers rising on our southern flank. Let’s begin with the powerful comeback of an anti-American leftist of the sort that Fidel Castro typified in his heyday. Hugo Chavez declares Fidel Castro to be his inspiration as he steadily centralizes all power in his hands in his march to establish the People’s Republic of Venezuela. 

Every revolution needs enemies to attack and blame. The United States fills that bill for Chavez who proclaims us as the main obstacle in the way of the implementation of his so-call “Bolivarian revolution.”

Not only is Hugo Chavez consolidating power in energy-rich Venezuela, but he also is implementing a strategy to carry out his leftist brand of social and political revolution throughout the region. That strategy involves helping like-minded Leftists garner and solidify power in other Latin American nations while seeking to undermine perceived enemies of Chavez’s “march to socialism” in such nations as Colombia and Mexico.

Right next door in Colombia, Chavez has done his best to weaken the conservative government of President Alvaro Uribe, who has been winning a long, bloody war against the murderous narco-terrorists who call themselves the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the FARC, to use its Spanish acronym. Files found in the computer of a dead FARC leader lend credence to the belief that Chavez supports the FARC not just with words but with money and arms.

Friends of mine who are close to the political situation in Mexico are convinced that Hugo Chavez provided significant assistance to the Leftist candidate for President in that country during the 2006 election, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The conservative leader of PAN, Felipe Calderon, narrowly defeated his Leftist opponent in that election, but Obrador continues to call himself (and behave as if he were) the “legitimate president of Mexico.”

Considering that Mexico shares a nearly 2000 mile border with the United States, Americans don’t realize how close a call it was when a Hugo Chavez ally came dangerously close to winning that election in Mexico.

The prospect of political chaos returning to a country that has had its share of violence since its revolution in 1910 obviously should cause us plenty of concern. The situation in Mexico becomes all the more worrisome in light of the drug-related violence presently afflicting the U.S.-Mexico border. An estimated 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States passes through Mexico.

According to the Congressional Research Service, “Mexican drug cartels now dominate the wholesale illicit drug market in the United States” with the seven major cartels fighting and murdering for control of the lucrative trafficking routes. The assassination of police officers and public officials is a key tactic of the cartels. Texans are directly affected by the drug-driven violence which afflicts our U.S- Mexico border communities. For example, as of last year, more than 60 Americans have been kidnapped in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo. We cannot afford to have Mexico fall under the control of a Hugo Chavez/Fidel Castro style of regime. Yet, that could easily happen if we don’t put policies in place soon to reverse current trends.

Already, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and our old “friend” Daniel Ortega are busily at work imposing their leftist models of political power in their respective nations.

What can be done to reverse the situation? What is our strategy? And, where are the Bill Caseys, William Clarks, Cap Weinbergers out there to execute a new foreign policy direction for the United States in Latin America?

Let me at this point voice my strong disagreement with the sentiments reportedly expressed by Senator Norm Coleman that Latin America needs more thinking along the lines of Rousseau and Kant – and less of Aquinas.  I would say just the opposite – Latin America needs to return to the political philosophy of Thomas Aquinas – and I would add – Jose Ortega y Gasset. And, that’s where the Catholic Church becomes so critical in improving the situation in Latin America.

Traditionally, the Catholic Church has been a strong force for stability and conservatism in Latin America. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 (like the French Revolution) was fundamentally an anti-religious revolution which targeted the Catholic Church as a principal “enemy” of the revolution. Unfortunately, the virus of liberation theology combined with base communities – so called Christian Marxism – gained significant influence within the Catholic Church beginning in the late 1960s and continuing throughout the 1970s. This infiltration of the Catholic Church by hard leftists paved the way for the rise to power of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and aided leftist advances in other South and Central American nations.

Pope John Paul II cracked down on the “liberation theology” crowd in the 1980s, and Pope Benedict XVI has continued John Paul’s policies in that regard. But, it takes a while to “clean out the stables,” and that continues to be a work in progress.

Nonetheless, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Latin America is an important ally in building a constructive alternative to the anti-religious, leftist political forces which have become so powerful south of our border.

In addition, we need to encourage the continued development and education of young scholars in Latin America grounded in the principles of ordered liberty and protection of private property rights.

We also need to address the out of control illicit drug trade by simultaneously expanding our support for President Calderon’s valiant effort to go after the drug cartels while initiating a new campaign here at home addressing the demand side of the problem modeled on the successful “Just Say No to Drugs” program led by Mrs. Nancy Reagan in the early 1980s.

Finally, we need a government led by conservatives determined to improve our relationship with our neighbors to the South and support those forces for the good – those economic and social conservatives in Latin America who are kindred spirits -- with the personal and political courage to stand up to the Leftist thugs like Hugo Chavez who are working so feverishly to take away the freedom of the average citizen in Latin America. 

Tom Pauken is Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission. He served as Director of Action, an independent federal agency, during the Reagan Administration.