Team Obama says Romney 'playing into the hands' of Chavez

The Obama campaign on Wednesday slammed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as “playing into the hands” of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez with his criticism of the president's approach to the leftist leader.

The tit-for-tat started after Romney and the GOP piled on Obama for saying that Venezuela's ties to Iran are not a “serious” threat to national security. 

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said it's “baffling” how Romney and the Republicans are “scared of a leader like Chavez whose power is fading.”

“People like Hugo Chavez want attention — and that’s exactly what Mitt Romney and his supporters gave him today,” LaBolt said. “Governor Romney is only playing into the hands of Chavez by acting like he’s 10 feet tall. 

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"President Obama has refused to be distracted by the outdated rhetoric of people like Hugo Chavez and instead has focused on restoring our nation’s standing in Latin America, strengthening our partnerships in the region, and standing up for democratic values in Venezuela. It’s disturbing that Mitt Romney is trying to score cheap political points by blustering and misrepresenting the president’s record while failing to outline any coherent foreign policy strategy.”

The counterattack comes after Republicans such as vice presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) denounced Obama for being “naive.”

“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.”

The comments came after 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 visits to Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador were 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.

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."

Chavez has been battling cancer and is seeking a third six-year term in the October presidential elections. Recent polling shows him just ahead of challenger Henrique Capriles, who has managed to unite the opposition unlike in past elections.