Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Monday that he would do more to counteract leftist governments in Venezuela and Cuba that have long been a thorn in the United States' side.
Romney delivered a foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute, in which he pledged to take a more muscular stance against countries that threaten the U.S. and its allies, such as Iran. The candidate's address almost solely focused on the turmoil in the Middle East, but one day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez won a third term, he briefly touched on Latin America.
"There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East, and it is not unique to that region," Romney said. "Our neighbors in Latin America want to resist the failed ideology of Hugo Chávez and the Castro brothers and deepen ties with the United States on trade, energy, and security. But in all of these places, just as in the Middle East, the question is asked: 'Where does America stand?' "
Romney says he is seeking to stake out a more assertive stance on foreign policy and national security compared to President Barack Obama, and he has frequently accused the current administration of toeing a soft line against the socialist Chávez and Communist Castro governments.
Chávez defeated moderate opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by ten percentage points, according to the Venezuelan national election committee. Capriles ran on a platform of restoring the country's free-market economy and instituting pro-democratic and anti-corruption reforms. Chávez has pledged to expand his socialist economic policies, including nationalizing industries and redistributing oil wealth to poor Venezuelans.
The Obama campaign responded to Romney, saying that the U.S.'s image in Latin America has improved under President Obama's watch. Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt noted that Chávez's margin of victory was the lowest it has been since he was first elected in 1998 and that the president has expanded ties with other nations.
"This election doesn't change the fact that because of President Obama's leadership, our standing is improved in the region," he said.
LaBolt also rebutted Romney's claim that Obama has not signed "one new free trade agreement," citing the fact he approved accords with Colombia and Panama that were negotiated during the George W. Bush administration but had been long-stalled in Congress.
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright knocked Romney for spending hardly any time addressing Latin America in his speech, especially countries other than Venezuela and Cuba. She also accused Romney in being vague about how his policy would differ from Obama's.
"[The speech was] really full of platitudes and free of substance," she said. "I would like to ask Mitt Romney and his advisers exactly what he would do differently."
Romney supporter and House Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) took a different focus than the GOP candidate: Chavez, accusing him of "manipulating" votes.
"It is unfortunate that Chavez has retained his grip on power in Venezuela," she said in a statement Sunday. "Chavez has denied access to international election monitors, employed last minute ballot changes, controlled the judicial system, harassed independent journalists, and consolidated his power to manipulate the vote in his favor."
The reaction from the Obama administration to Chávez's victory has been somewhat muted. The State Department recognized the result of the election, but urged Chávez to respect Capriles' supporters, who want more democratic reforms.
"We congratulate the Venezuelan people for the high turnout and generally peaceful manner in which this election was carried out," State Department spokesman William Ostick said in a statement to ABC/Univision. "We believe that the views of the more than six million people who voted for the opposition should be taken into account going forward."
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One that "We have our differences with President Chavez ... But we congratulate the Venezuelan people" for a "peaceful" election process.
Throughout his time in power, Chávez has postured as an enemy of the U.S. and has aligned himself with other socialist-governed nations in the Western Hemisphere such as Cuba, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Romney's statement came as he is looking to improve his support among Florida's Hispanic voters, which include a large population of Cuban-Americans who are deeply opposed to the Castro government and a newer, but growing cadre of Venezuelans who largely dislike Chávez.
The Venezuelan president has provoked special anger from conservatives and Republicans in the U.S. stemming from his toxic relationship with President George W. Bush, whom he referred to as a "devil." He has also intermittently embraced Obama during the latter's first term in office.
The Venezuelan leader said late last month that he would vote for Obama if he lived in the U.S. and said that he hopes to resume "normal relations" with the U.S. if both are reelected.
"I hope this doesn't harm Obama, but if I was from the United States, I'd vote for Obama," he said.
Some observers had believed that Chávez would have a less rancorous relationship with Obama than he had with Bush, the Venezuelan strongman criticized Obama for carrying out foreign policies similar to his predecessor. Still, Republicans have seized on the endorsement as a telling sign.
"Americans need to ask themselves: what does it say about President Obama's weakness on foreign policy matters that our allies like Israel openly express frustration with him, while our enemies like Hugo Chávez openly endorse his reelection?" said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in a statement Monday.
The Obama administration has expressed disapproval over Chávez's leadership, but the president has viewed him as less of a threat to the region than Bush did. Over the summer, Romney and his allies pounced on Obama's statement to a Miami TV station that Chávez does not present a serious national security threat to the United States, even though he has formed a relationship with the Iranian regime.
"As president, I will speak clearly and resolutely on the challenges we face so that both our allies and our adversaries will know where we stand," Romney said in a statement in July.