Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) sits on the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He has taken an interest in the threat Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez poses to the United States. Mack was so concerned with Chavez’s propaganda efforts of selling low-cost heating oil to poor Americans through a program involving former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-Mass.) that he challenged Kennedy to a debate.
BMI’s Julia A. Seymour talked with Mack about media coverage and Chavez’s threats.
Julia Seymour: I’m sure you’ve paid special attention to media coverage of Chavez. Have you noticed specific problems with the coverage?
Rep. Connie Mack: I think that in some respects there has been coverage, but the problem is there hasn’t been enough of it. In my opinion, the press needs to do a better job of focusing on the real threat that Hugo Chavez poses to the United States and to the Western Hemisphere.
I think that Hugo Chavez wants to be to Iran, what Cuba was to Russia. And this is a very dangerous time. We are talking about a man that is gonna see the weight of his economy start falling down on him and he’s gonna look for help. And he’s going to look to those people he’s been dealing with which is Iran and North Korea. It’s a serious threat and I don’t think the press, nor the administration has paid enough attention.
JS: What are the media not telling Americans about Chavez?
CM: Well, I don’t know that there is a specific other than again – there needs to be a public dialogue on Latin America, Western hemisphere and in particular Hugo Chavez. Every day he is tearing down another pillar of freedom and democracy in Venezuela. It’s no longer that he’s president, he’s moving toward a dictatorship: giving himself decree power, wanting to change the constitution so he can serve until he dies basically. These are not the acts of someone who believes in democracy, these are acts of a dictator.
JS: In February, you said you disagree with a “hands-off-approach-to-Chavez.” Can you explain what sort of approach you think the U.S. should take?
CM: I think we should be more proactive and we should focus on having a larger discussion on the worldwide stage about Hugo Chavez. We should support democracy building and grassroots opposition groups in Venezuela. They need it now more than ever because he is trying to squash and squelch their voice. We need to be there for them.
Supporting our allies in the region and not turning our backs on the likes of Peru and Panama and Colombia. There are countries in Latin America who are trying to ride out the wave of this socialist dictatorship that is sweeping through and you can see it in other countries. In Bolivia, you can see where the same model is happening and they are trying to do it in other countries like Peru, Panama, Colombia and we need to be supporting our allies.
There’s lots of things we can do. It doesn’t have to be a military response. We should have everything on the table to ensure that Latin America stays a place that believes in freedom and democracy and we don’t see governments come in and strip those away from the people of Latin America.
JS: How are Chavez’ nationalization actions harming ordinary Americans or American businesses?
CM: Certainly it’s happening. He’s using basically blackmail and trying to extort American businesses and stealing American property for his own ambitions. This is a guy that doesn’t care about the law, contracts and entrepreneurial spirit. If I was a businessman doing business in Venezuela I would be very concerned.
JS: Is the U.S. vulnerable to Chavez because of oil, or in any other ways?
CM: In the long run, I don’t think so, but in the short term he’s trying to destabilize and undermine oil economics. He could have a significant effect – I do think in this country we need to continue to have a dialogue and really move things in Congress to switch to alternative energy sources so we are not so dependent on oil. We should be able to produce energy domestically so we no longer have to be held up by these dictators in other countries for oil.
JS: Is it true that while Chavez has given a small amount of low-cost oil to disadvantaged Americans, his actions have been increasing the cost of oil?
CM: I think we’re talking about Joe Kennedy and his program for low cost heating oil. If Hugo Chavez wants to give oil for that program, then we’ll be happy to take it. But at the same time I don’t believe that Joe Kennedy or anybody else in this country should be going around talking about “Our good friends in Venezuela.” They are not our good friends and we need to be clear about exactly who Hugo Chavez is and what he is trying to do in Venezuela.
This is just another attempt by him to use someone in this country with a very powerful name as part of his propaganda machine. No American, especially someone like Joe Kennedy should give him that platform. That’s just wrong.
JS: If you could make any specific recommendations to the media, what would you ask them to do in their reporting?
CM: I would tell them to engage the public in dialogue about Hugo Chavez’ true intentions, what his intentions are in the western hemisphere. I would like for the media to report more about his relationship with Iran, Cuba, Russia and others. I also think it is worth time that the media look more into what kind of deals were cut with Joe Kennedy on the oil program that he had. Kennedy stopped playing the ads that created the controversy pretty quickly.
So the question is, when Chavez gave him the oil did he say, “I’ll give it to you, but you’ve got to run positive pieces for me?” Where did the money come from to run the ads? So I think that there is a lot that the media can do.