Although many Latin American countries are seen as "weak, poor and unstable," Lowell Gustafson said that they actually represent a threat that must be taken seriously.
"The fear throughout history is that Latin America could be a staging area" for military strikes or acts of terrorism, continued Gustafson, who spoke Monday to members of the World Affairs Council at their offices in Center City. His talk was the first in a four-part lecture series called "Great Decisions 2008."
Gustafson recalled that Latin America was set to be President George W. Bush's major foreign-policy initiative when he came to power in January 2001, until the attacks of Sept. 11 forced the United States suddenly to shift its policies.
"Latin America dropped off the radar screen," he quipped.
Today, much attention has shifted back to the region, particularly to the socialist regime of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Head of an oil-rich nation, Chavez has called Bush "the devil," and aligned himself with the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Much of the organized Jewish world has kept an eye on Chavez as well after he publicly lashed out against Israel in the midst of the summer 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Gustafson believes that Chavez's invective against Israel stems not from anti-Semitism, but from his belief that the Jewish state is an extension of the United States, since the two are such close allies.
"My impression is that it has more to do with being anti-American, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend," said Gustafson, who is not Jewish.
When asked about Jewish life in Latin America during an interview after his formal remarks, Gustafson recalled his first trip to Argentina back in 1983. He said that Buenos Aires vendors who normally sold gum or candy at small stands on street corners were also selling copies of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and other anti-Semitic materials.
Perhaps the most gruesome display of anti-Semitism in Latin America in recent memory came in the same city a few years later, with the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992, followed by a similarly deadly attack on AMIA, the Jewish community center, in 1994.
Despite the bombings, Argentina still has the largest Jewish population in Latin America, with 195,000 Jewish residents, according to a study called World Jewish Population 2002. It is followed by Brazil with 97,300, then Mexico with 40,400.
Gustafson said he believes that one of the biggest issues for Latin American Jews is often feeling like a guest in their own home.
"Jews have lived in Argentina for over a century; they're as Argentine as anybody else," he said. "And yet, to feel as though the dominant culture is not only non-Jewish, but sometimes hostile to Judaism, has got to be pretty disconcerting."
Latin America has also had a long known problem with drug trafficking, a business that "rivals petroleum in world affairs."
Even though decades ago, the United States declared a war on drugs, Gustafson said that its efforts have been a complete defeat.
"No matter what we do, it doesn't seem to work," he said. "If the amount of drugs has gone up, and the value has gone up; we have failed."
In the tri-border area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, Gustafson said that there is "a real chance that some of the drug trading there might actually be cooperating with some of the drug traders in the Middle East."
Gustafson said that, during his travels to Latin America, he's talked with diplomats in Chile and Argentina about the drug trade, and its links to the Middle East and terrorism, with reference to the tri-border area.
"I asked them if this was on the radar screen, and they said yes," explained Gustafson. "It doesn't sound like it's at the top of their list of concerns, but it sounds like it certainly is among the mix of concerns."