Bush targets Chavez

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Dec 28 10:29:17 MST 2000


NY Times, December 28, 2000

Bush Could Get Tougher on Venezuela's Leader

By CHRISTOPHER MARQUIS

WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 — After two years in which the United States has
carefully avoided a feud with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the
administration of George W. Bush will probably take a tougher stand against
the populist leader, Republican officials and foreign policy analysts say.

There is a growing belief in Republican circles that Mr. Chávez is
undercutting American foreign policy by providing oil to Cuba, by opposing
"Plan Colombia," which includes $1.3 billion in United States
counternarcotics aid for South America, and by giving political support to
guerrillas and anti-government forces in neighboring Andean nations.

There is also concern that Mr. Chávez, a former paratrooper who led a
failed coup in 1992, is distorting the democratic free-market model
advocated in Washington by consolidating institutions under his control and
setting himself up as an elected dictator.

While there is no bipartisan consensus on whether Mr. Chávez is merely a
nuisance or a real threat to United States interests in Latin America,
Republican advisers to the Bush team say the friction is increasingly hard
to overlook.

"The Venezuela issue is likely to be troubling, or a hot spot in the first
three to six months" as anti-drug battalions trained by the United States
begin operations in Colombia, said Georges A. Fauriol, director of the
Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a
foreign policy research center with close ties to Republicans.

But the analysts also preach caution. The stakes are high, they note, as
Venezuela holds the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East and is
America's fourth largest supplier. An openly hostile stance toward Mr.
Chávez could do more harm than good.

"It's been a conscious policy of trying to engage with him on a positive
basis wherever possible without rising to the rhetorical bait when he pokes
us in the eye," said Bernard Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state
for Latin America in the previous Bush administration. "His actions are
getting harder and harder to ignore. I'm not sure the incoming
administration is going to be as tolerant."

Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Toro Hardy, said that Mr. Chávez had
legitimate concerns over Plan Colombia, including a fear that it will bring
refugees, renewed violence and an arms race to Venezuela.

"He is a president who believes a nation, no matter its size, has the right
to act in a sovereign fashion," he said. "But it in no way is a hostile
posture."

Some Clinton administration officials agree. One longtime diplomat who
served in Venezuela said Mr. Chávez had not jeopardized the United States
priorities of fighting drugs, protecting democracy and safeguarding the oil
supply. "All of our interests are pretty well taken care of," the diplomat
said. However troublesome Mr. Chávez's moves to purge the judiciary and
neutralize political parties and labor unions, the envoy added, "what
Chávez did he did on the basis of clean elections. So far he is functioning
within the democratic structure."

Republican Party foreign policy experts say they would look to Mexico to
help reduce America's dependence on Venezuelan oil, which currently
accounts for 13 percent of United States imports. Mr. Chávez has helped in
that regard, slashing his nation's oil production to drive up prices; in
the process, Venezuela slipped behind Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico as a
United States supplier.

While governor of Texas, Mr. Bush built a comfortable relationship with
Mexico's conservative new president, Vicente Fox, and he is expected to
make United States-Mexican relations a cornerstone of his Latin policy.

"We need to cultivate the Mexicans on this," said a Republican foreign
policy aide who served Presidents Reagan and Bush. "They could conceivably
be a much more reliable supplier."

The next administration is also expected to solidify contacts within the
Venezuelan military, which is increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Chávez,
the Republican experts say. Unlike Mr. Chávez, many Venezuelan officers
studied and trained in the United States and do not share his suspicions,
they said.

Rather than clash directly with Mr. Chávez, the Republicans say, they would
favor a quiet effort to prod other Latin American nations to spurn Mr.
Chávez and ignore his appeals to regional solidarity. Most of Venezuela's
Andean neighbors have already voiced distress over what they say is
meddling by Mr. Chávez in their internal affairs, but the most influential
nation, Brazil, has taken a more benign view.

"Bush has an opportunity with Venezuela to say, I'm going to deal with the
hemisphere respectfully, and to a certain extent, I'm got to let the
hemisphere be the judge of Chávez's behavior," said Dan Fisk, a senior
fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group. "What
Chávez wants is to provoke some sort of overreaction from Washington."

The incoming administration will also try to blunt regional skepticism
toward Plan Colombia by providing a significant amount of development aid
to Venezuela's neighbors, officials and analysts said.

Since Mr. Chávez took office in February of last year, he has seemed
determined to display his independence from the United States, a posture
that plays well with his nationalistic, mostly poor supporters. He spurned
United States flood aid when American troops came to deliver it. He became
the first head of state to break the international isolation of Saddam
Hussein, the Iraqi leader, when he visited Iraq in August.

He lavished admiration on Fidel Castro, and helped him combat the American
trade ban by sending him oil in return for medical service for Venezuelans.
He has fostered the greatest increase in tensions with Colombia in two
decades, has reached out to Colombian rebels and has predicted that
American military aid will lead to a regional conflagration. His
expressions of sympathy for anti-government forces in Bolivia and Ecuador
have drawn howls of protest from those countries.

He has barred American counter- narcotics pilots from flying in Venezuelan
airspace, and he has led the charge in OPEC to force up prices by scaling
back production. During the uncertain days after the United States
presidential election, Mr. Chávez could not resist a jab at his northern
neighbor. "We're willing to help out if necessary," he said.

Such positions play well at home, and some analysts say it is occasionally
difficult to determine whether Mr. Chávez's appeals to class resentment and
regional leadership are merely bluster.

Toro Hardy, Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, argues that Mr. Chávez
has been a reliable economic partner of the United States and has taken
major steps toward market reform and privatization that have benefited
American investors.

"When two countries have such close economic ties you can't speak of
conflicting relations," Mr. Hardy said in an interview.

He denied that Venezuela provides any material support to rebels in the
Andean region, and he attributed the concern over Mr. Chávez to
"misperceptions." He said Mr. Chávez's five trips to the United States
prove he is not anti-American.

Louis Proyect
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