Romney stunned by 'shocking' Obama comment on Chavez

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney slammed President Obama on Wednesday for saying that Venezuela's ties to Iran haven't posed a “serious” threat to national security.

“This is a stunning and shocking comment by the president,” Romney said in a statement. “It is disturbing to see him downplaying the threat posed to U.S. interests by a regime that openly wishes us ill. 

“Hugo Chavez has provided safe haven to drug kingpins, encouraged regional terrorist organizations that threaten our allies like Colombia, has strengthened military ties with Iran and helped it evade sanctions, and has allowed a Hezbollah presence within his country's borders. And he is seeking to lead — together with [Cuba's] Castros — a destabilizing, anti-democratic, and anti-American ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ across Latin America.”

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The comments follow an interview Obama gave Tuesday to a Spanish-language television station in Miami.

“We're always concerned about Iran engaging in destabilizing activity around the globe,” Obama told América TeVe. “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.”

Republicans in Congress have raised concerns about Tehran's ties to Latin American leftists, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee asking in a February hearing if Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador was spurred by a desire to “attack” the United States or undercut its influence in the region. The hearing followed U.S. allegations that elements tied to Iran's elite Quds Force attempted to team up with a Mexican drug gang to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States.

Some experts, however, question the extent of the threat posed by Iran, arguing that the outreach to Latin American allies is a desperate attempt to seek support in the face of near-universal sanctions aimed at getting Iran to renounce its nuclear ambitions. Iran insists the program is for peaceful energy, yet Western nations fear Tehran is seeking weapons capability.

Minutes after releasing the candidate's statement, the Romney campaign piled on with another one from former President George W. Bush chief of staff and New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu saying Obama's words damaged national security.

“When President Obama says, as he did in a television interview on Monday, that Chavez has not had ‘a serious national security impact on us,’ he’s dead wrong," Sununu said. "Such a statement by an American president itself damages U.S. national security by emboldening one of the most anti-American actors on the international stage.”

In the interview, Obama also defended his decision to lift travel restrictions on Cuba, but said Raúl Castro's government needs to make democratic changes for the two nations' relationship to improve.

“I believe that there should be a way for us to resolve this 50-year conflict with Cuba, but it involves recognizing liberty and, you know, 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."

The Romney campaign also released a statement from Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) reminding voters that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself called Obama's views on Chavez "naive" when she was running against him in the 2008 election.

“Five years ago, campaigning against Barack Obama for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton said that Barack Obama’s views of Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan strongman, were ‘irresponsible and frankly naïve,’ " Mack said. "That was right in 2007, and it's still right today."

Separately from the Romney campaign, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a possible running mate for Romney, released a statement Wednesday saying Obama "continues to display an alarmingly naïve understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face in the Western Hemisphere.”

"It’s now disturbingly clear that President Obama has been living under a rock when it comes to recognizing the national security threat posed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez," Rubio said.