SECRETARY of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's criticism of Venezuela for purchasing new weapons for its military is one example of a shifting climate in U.S.-Latin American relations that the Bush Administration seems slow to catch.
With the end of the Cold War it was thought not only that the United States could afford to let the nations of Latin America stand on their own two feet to a greater degree, but also that it was healthier and better for them to do so. Democratically elected civilian governments and liberal economies were also thought to be desirable phenomena down there.
But, left to themselves, the people of Latin America do not either necessarily go in that direction, nor do they end up necessarily in pro-American stances.
Castro's Cuba has never toed the line. Brazil goes its own way. The Andean countries are being stirred by a pan-Indian movement. Argentina sometimes takes an original approach to debt. Chile took the road to civilian democracy and a free economy through a middle stage of repressive military dictatorship.
Venezuela, under President Hugo Chavez, is Washington's current favorite villain. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Mr. Chavez a "negative force." But President Chavez, Washington likes to forget, was elected, winning a 2004 referendum with 59 percent of the vote.
It's no surprise that Mr. Chavez gets under the administration's skin. He signed an oil deal with China. He has cozied up to the Iranians. He sells oil to Castro's Cuba at cut-rate prices. And, sin of sins, he is talking about buying for Venezuela some of the profitable assets of U.S. oil companies.
So now when Mr. Chavez says he is going to buy 100,000 new AK-47s from Russia for his 100,000 soldiers, Mr. Rumsfeld lashes into him and Venezuela, wondering whom the AK-47s might really be intended for. That's like asking if the F-16 fighter-bombers that Washington has just announced it will sell to Pakistan might not end up in Iranian or North Korean hands, as Pakistan's nuclear weapons technology did.
Latin American countries are going to take different roads if they are truly free and independent. What good reason is there for a grouchy Donald Rumsfeld, speaking for a Bush Administration influenced by Cuban exiles and the oil industry, to take a swat at one of them for doing so?