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Is Hugo Chavez a US security threat?

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Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

(Read caption) Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez greets supporters during an election rally in Barcelona in the state of Anzoategui on Wednesday, July 12.

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As the US presidential campaign is in full swing, there was a bit of back and forth about Venezuela this week.

President Obama minimized the national security impact that Venezuelan President Chavez has had on the United States, with his campaign saying, "Hugo Chavez has become increasingly marginalized and his influence has waned. It’s baffling that Mitt Romney is so scared of a leader like Chavez whose power is fading...." The Romney campaign and its surrogates have come out full force on Chavez's friendships with Iran and ties to various terrorist and criminal groups.

The biggest problem in Venezuela, however, is not ties to Iran or the degradation of democracy, it's the lack of citizen security. The numbers from the first six months of 2012 show 9,510 murders took place in Venezuela. That's 52 murders per day, putting the country on pace for 68 murders per 100,000 population by the end of the year. Those numbers make the country one of the top two most violent in the world (along with Honduras).

For comparison, Venezuela's murder rate will be three to four times higher than Mexico's and the total number of murders will be higher than Mexico's, even with a quarter of the population. Venezuela has over twice the rate of killings in Colombia, which is classified as being in a state of internal armed conflict.

Those murders in Venezuela aren't a direct national security threat to the United States, but they are a sign of a weak government incapable of completing the most basic of tasks. It is a threat to Venezuelans, who must live with the violence, and to Venezuela's neighbors, who must worry about the violence and weapons spilling across its borders.

President Obama is correct that Chavez has not had a significant national security impact on the US in recent years and that his influence is waning. But we should be concerned about what the post-Chavez environment in Venezuela will look like, whether it occurs this year or later in the decade. Once the political distraction of its clownish leader is gone, the realization that Venezuela is facing levels of violence on par with an internal armed conflict may well be an issue that the hemisphere cannot ignore.

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