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A New Cold War in the Caribbean?

by Nikolas Kozloff on Sep 15, 2008

This last week, "Go ahead and squeal," he taunted us. The cause of his outburst? Likely American protests in the future over his moves to hold joint exercises in the Caribbean with the Russian navy. No one likes Chávez's loopy Cold-War language, but he's onto something with his nutty words: the way the Bush administration has compromised American foreign policy and jeopardized world peace.When Venezuela's Hugo Chávez throws one of his rhetorical bombs, we learn something about the failure of U.S. foreign policy.

The Russian naval deployment is expected to be the largest in the Caribbean since the Cold War. It's a worrying development, and yet the Bush White House has no one but itself to blame. Ever since the United States aided the opposition forces that briefly dislodged Chávez from power in April 2002, relations between the two countries have been downright poisonous.

Recently the Pentagon incited tensions further when it announced that the United States would revive its Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean. The Navy claims it is resuscitating the fleet to combat terrorism, keep the economic sea lanes of trade free and open, counter illicit trafficking and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief when and where it is needed.

It's no secret, however, that the United States would like to see Chávez go. For Venezuelans, the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet brings back uncomfortable memories of U.S. aircraft carriers, destroyers and Marine forces poised to launch strikes from the sea against Soviet and Cuban forces at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, the Venezuelan leader is probably correct in seeing the reemergence of the Fourth Fleet as a shot across his bow.

But as history has shown, wielding a big stick in the Caribbean can have grave and unforeseen consequences for the United States.

In 1962, America and the Soviet Union came as close as they ever would to nuclear war. The crisis erupted when President Kennedy, intent on rolling back revolution in Cuba, authorized the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. Convinced that the United States would stop at nothing to remove him from power, Cuba's President Fidel Castro in turn sought military support from the Soviets. When the Russians began secretly deploying ballistic missiles to Cuba, U.S. naval forces steamed out to sea, intercepted Soviet submarines and maintained a month-long quarantine of Cuba.

Today, in an eerie replay of 1962, the Bush White House is obstinately ratcheting up tensions with Venezuela's Chávez. What's worse, in addition to provoking Venezuela the U.S. government has alienated Russia, which is unhappy about NATO expansion on its borders, not to mention the installation of U.S. missile defense systems in nearby Poland.

Relations took a further nosedive last month when Russian forces fought a brief war with a U.S. ally, Georgia, over the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia. When the United States sent warships to the Black Sea to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia, Russian authorities grew wary of U.S. intentions. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would mount an unspecified response to the Georgian aid shipments. The Russian naval deployment to the Caribbean comes just weeks after Putin's ominous announcement.

Fortunately, the world narrowly avoided nuclear holocaust in 1962 when the Soviets agreed to dismantle weapons sites in Cuba. Given Kennedy's brinksmanship, however, things might easily have turned out differently. With tensions in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe already on the upswing, the world cannot afford another Cold War-style naval face-off in the Caribbean.

And yet it is clear that, if elected, John McCain would do little to calm the waters. During the Caucasus conflict, McCain called on Russia to unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from Georgian territory. A hawk on Latin America, McCain has said that Chávez has breathed "new oxygen" into the Cuban government and that Washington should do more to quell dictatorships throughout the region. Such saber-rattling inevitably tends to bring countries like Venezuela and Russia together.

To his credit, Barack Obama has been less bellicose. At the height of the war in South Ossetia, the Illinois senator called for an end to the violence there but stopped short of assigning blame or making strong demands of Moscow. Obama furthermore declared that he would open diplomatic channels to nations such as Venezuela.

Rather than trying to outflank McCain on the right in an effort to appear strong on national defense, Obama should make the case that McCain has recklessly antagonized Russia and endangered world peace. U.S. voters have no desire to go back to the paranoid days of the Cold War when East-West tensions were dangerously played out in the Caribbean.

Nikolas Kozloff is a senior research associate with the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) and the author of "Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left" (2008).