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| Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011

Yes, yes, yes, "immigrants have been crucial to our country since its founding and often do the work that no one else would," writes Angela Tudell Vasquez for the Progressive Media Project. This column agrees.

And, yes, yes, yes, "Ours is a nation of immigrants," she continues. "We should honor our openness and diversity, not curse it." Again, this column agrees.

But immigration without controls is anarchy. Those who wish to migrate from points south (or anywhere else, for that matter) should follow the rules, which means respecting the rule of law.

More than a few Americans would be surprised to know that one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's No. 1 cheerleaders is a Venezuelan-American woman named Eva Golinger, originally of New York. She was profiled in the Feb. 5 New York Times.

So taken is Chavez with her that Golinger even accompanied him on a recent trip to Iran, Libya and Syria.

She contends the United States has worked overtime to destabilize Venezuela and, as one can expect, that has become a great propaganda tool for the head of the self-styled "Bolivarian revolution."

"I am a soldier for this revolution," Golinger, 37, told The Times during an interview at a cafe in Caracas.

Golinger might be what Grove City College professor Paul Kengor would call a "dupe," even rationalizing Belarus dictator Aleksandr G. Kukashenko and speaking glowingly of his "socialism."

Remember the name -- Eva Golinger. You'll be hearing much more from and about her, for good or for ill.

Speaking of Venezuela , The Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer writes that Hugo Chavez could be "one of the big winners" of any major rise in oil prices tied to worries over shipping instability through the Suez Canal and the uprising in Egypt.

"(E)ach $1 rise in world oil prices will give the Chavez regime an extra $730 million a year," he says. That's after subtracting subsidized oil sales to countries such as Cuba, he adds.

But there's a Big But in all of this that the Latin American correspondent does not address -- Venezuelan oil is "heavy crude." While perhaps closer to the surface and cheaper to extract, its transport and refining costs are greater than "light crude" and it's handicapped by its high sulphur content, hardly the stuff of environmental friendliness.

Standard & Poor's , the debt-rating agency, wonders aloud if 2011 will be "the dawn of the Latin American decade."

It cites, among other things, relative political stability. Other people cite supposedly more disciplined and pragmatic policymaking. And there are predictions that many of the region's countries actually will become "advanced economies" in the next 10 to 20 years.

But the prognostications sound a might rosy considering what's happening on the ground in many parts of the region. Crime rates have exploded in many countries. As has inflation (30 percent in some). And as The Herald's Oppenheimer also notes, there hasn't been much diversification in the economic base: "(M)ost countries are just exporting more raw materials, much like they did centuries ago."

It doesn't sound so promising when the facts, often pesky and inconvenient, are considered.

There's really no better way to describe Central America than as a mess.

"The end of political armed conflict 15 years ago has not been accompanied by higher levels of social peace," reminds Michael Shifter, writing in Current History. "On the contrary, fear and lawlessness today are rampant in the region."

Some here-and-there factoids:

• Costa Rica, known for its relative tranquility, social progress and democracy in practice, is plagued with drug-fueled violence and border tensions with neighboring Nicaragua remain high.

• Private security forces outnumber police in Guatemala and Honduras by five to 10 times.

• Mexican cartels have penetrated Honduras.

• While old-fashioned militarism and political violence have declined in Guatemala, the region's largest country, organized crime and corruption are running rampant, where the homicide rate is four times that in Mexico.

• "Unchecked criminality could trigger reflexes for more authoritarian approaches," writes Shifter.

Extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking all are running rampant in Central America. And that's only scratched the surface.

How sobering this is -- a ticking time bomb that any single catalyst or number of catalysts could detonate and spew a contagious fallout.

The Latin Beat is written by a Pittsburgh-based observer of the Latin American scene who has worked and traveled extensively in the region.

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