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Inside Politics
Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Latin America's infection

• Latin American leaders meet
Latin America

WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- When Gen. Omar Halleslevens was installed Monday in Managua as chief of the Nicaraguan army, the U.S. government was represented by a mere major at the change-of-command ceremony.

The slight was intentional. Halleslevens is regarded at the Pentagon as a hard-line Sandinista, whose rise to power represents profound problems in Latin America.

The Sandinistas, the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary party repeatedly rejected by Nicaraguan voters, are on the verge of accomplishing what U.S. officials call a "golpe technico" (technical coup), stripping President Enrique Bolanos of power.

It is no isolated event restricted to a small Central American country. The Sandinistas have a rich and powerful ally in Hugo Chavez, the Marxist president of Venezuela.

Chavez has not only survived all Venezuelan challenges to his power but is making great strides in spreading his "Bolivarian Revolution" throughout the region.

Besides the Nicaraguan connection, Chavez endangers shaky elected presidents in Peru and Ecuador and is aiming at unseating Bolivia's president, as he did his predecessor. At the same time, Colombia's conservative regime is busy staving off narco-guerrillas backed by Chavez.

The Venezuelan is spreading his influence through Latin America more effectively than his friend and ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro, ever did.

George W. Bush, while preaching global democracy, clearly has his hands full in his own hemisphere but until now has ignored this deepening regional crisis.

A few low-level officials in Washington have been ringing the warning bell in the night. The intentional slight at Monday's change-of-command ceremony was a small sign of success for them.

After a spirited debate among middle-level Bush administration officials, an inter-agency meeting decided not to send anybody to an event that normally would be attended by a four-star U.S. officer, Gen. Bantz Craddock, the Miami-based Southern Command commander in chief. Protests from the U.S. Embassy in Managua resulted in a low-level U.S. Army officer being sent.

Elevating Halleslevens to command of the army suggests how completely the Sandinistas are back controlling Nicaragua. Chavez has taken two years to radicalize the Venezuelan army.

Nicaragua never really purged the Sandinista influence from its military. The CIA has reported that Col. Halleslevens was in the party's inner circle 15 years ago as chief of the counter-intelligence directorate, funneling arms to foreign terrorists.

The state of the country's military is reflected in the conclusion by U.S. officials that Nicaraguan officers supplied the SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles that were intended to be sold to Colombian narco-terrorists last month.

The purchasers were actually undercover Nicaraguan police and U.S. drug agents. The sellers caught in the sting stayed behind bars only for a short time before Sandinista lawyers got them released.

The message of disapproval from Washington is being delivered personally this week on a mission to Managua by Rose Likins, a tough foreign service officer who serves as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.

She is known to speak bluntly and will express outrage at the use of extra-parliamentary maneuvers to return to effective power the Sandinista former president, Daniel Ortega.

Ortega is collaborating with the disgraced President Arnoldo Aleman, the Liberal Party stalwart convicted of massive corruption who is under house arrest and is virtually a free man.

They have combined to thwart the efforts of the Bolanos government to destroy the Soviet surface-to-air missiles Nicaragua collected during Sandinista rule.

The return of the Sandinistas 15 years after the voters of Nicaragua dismissed them comes at a time when the anti-American, anti-capitalist Chavez is arming Venezuela.

In addition to the widely publicized purchase of 100,000 AK-47 automatic rifles from Moscow, Chavez is also buying 24 Super Tucano combat aircraft from Brazil.

Leftist presidents in Brazil and Chile turn a blind eye to the Bolivarian Revolution. The situation goes virtually unnoticed on Capitol Hill. At her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was criticized by Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd and Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee for being unkind to Chavez (who has profanely and inexcusably attacked her).

President Bush hardly ever mentions Latin America, but Rice brings a voice to the Cabinet that appreciates the infection spreading throughout America's backyard.

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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