President Barack Obama said in an interview broadcast late Tuesday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez—a leftist leader who flaunts close ties with Iran and has become a bugbear for American conservatives—has not posed a "serious" threat to American national security. Obama, speaking to Miami's America TeVe, also played down prospects that he would ease American pressure on Cuba if he wins a second term.
Obama was asked whether he was concerned about what has been a public show of solidarity between Chavez and Iran. "The truth is that we're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe," the president replied.
"But overall my sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us. We have to be vigilant," Obama said. "My main concern when it comes to Venezuela is having the Venezuelan people have a voice in their affairs and that you end up ultimately having fair and free elections, which we don't always see."
His comments drew a sharp rebuke on Wednesday from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who branded the president "alarmingly naive" and said Obama had been "living under a rock when it comes to recognizing the national security threat posed by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez."
Rubio, often listed as a top contender to be Mitt Romney's running mate, charged that Venezuela had worked to help Iran "in its attempts to expand its intelligence network throughout the hemisphere, facilitated money laundering activities that finance state sponsors of terrorism and provided a safe haven for FARC narco-terrorists, among many other actions."
"Just yesterday, The Wall Street Journal detailed how Hugo Chavez circumvents U.S. and EU sanctions to help prop up the Assad regime in Syria. And even Obama's own State Department belatedly but rightly expelled Chavez's consul general in Miami for her ties to a plan to wage cyberattacks on the U.S.," said Rubio.
The Florida senator did not explicitly comment on Obama's remarks about relations with Cuba. Neither did the Republican National Committee, which highlighted the president's assertion about Chavez.
But it was clearly on interviewer Oscar Haza's mind: He prefaced his question by saying "If I don't ask you about Cuba, I can't get back to Miami" before inquiring whether Obama would soften Washington's line on Cuba in a (hypothetical) second term.
"I believe that there should be a way for us to resolve this 50-year conflict with Cuba, but it involves recognizing liberty, and releasing political prisoners, and showing movement inside of Cuba," Obama said. "We've shown flexibility in remittances, and lifting parts of the travel ban for family members. And I think that was the right thing to do. And my hope is that the Cuban government begins to recognize that their system is no longer working."
Haza followed up, asking about the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor jailed in Cuba on charges he brought forbidden communications equipment there.
"That's why I say that we're not going to see big moves or major improvement in the U.S.-Cuba relationship if the Cuban leadership continues to do the same thing over and over again," Obama replied.
America TeVe was the only Florida news outlet represented Monday as Obama did interviews with local television stations from six battleground states plus Louisiana and Kentucky. Obama's remarks to America TeVe were first reported by The Miami Herald.