U.S. Considers Toughening Stance Toward Venezuela
By JUAN FORERO
Published: April 26, 2005
As President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela veers toward greater confrontation with Washington, the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government, American officials say.
The Bush administration has already begun to urge Venezuela's neighbors to distance themselves from Mr. Chávez and to raise concerns about press freedoms, judicial independence and the Venezuelan government's affinity for leftist groups abroad, including Colombian guerrillas.
But it has found no allies so far in its attempts to isolate the Venezuelan leader, and it has grown more and more frustrated by Mr. Chávez's strident anti-American outbursts and policies that seem intended to fly in the face of Washington. On Sunday, Mr. Chávez ended a 35-year military cooperation agreement and ordered out four American military instructors he accused of fomenting unrest.
The accusation, which American officials denied, was the latest blow to relations that had been bitter since the United States tacitly supported a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chávez in April 2002. Since then his strength has grown. He won a recall election last August, and record high oil prices have left his government flush with money as it provides 15 percent of American oil imports.
American officials, who had chosen to ignore Mr. Chávez through much of last year, now recognize the need for a longer-term strategy to deal with a leader who is poised to win a second six-year term in elections next year.
A multiagency task force in Washington has been working on shaping a new approach, one that high-ranking American policy makers say would most likely veer toward a harder line. United States support for groups that Chávez supporters say oppose the government has been a source of tension in the past. Under the plans being considered, American officials said, that support may increase.
"The conclusion that is increasingly being drawn in Washington is that a realistic, pragmatic relationship, in which we can agree to disagree on some issues but make progress on others, does not seem to be in the cards," said an American official who helps guide policy in Latin America.
The official added, "We offered them a more pragmatic relationship, but obviously if they do not want it, we can move to a more confrontational approach."
Already counternarcotics programs have suffered, American officials noted, and meetings among high-ranking officials from the two countries are minimal.
"What's happening here is they realize this thing is deteriorating rapidly and it's going to require some more attention," said a high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill who works on Latin America policy. "The current look-the-other-way policy is not working."
The United States, he said, is particularly concerned because Venezuela is one of four top providers of foreign oil to the United States. "You can't write him off," the aide said of Mr. Chávez. "He's sitting on an energy source that's critical to us."
A main problem for the United States is that Washington has little, if any, influence over Caracas. The high price of oil has left Venezuela with no need for the loans or other aid that the United States could use as leverage.
Nor does the Bush administration have much support in Latin America, where left-leaning leaders now govern two-thirds of the continent. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to raise concerns about Venezuela in a four-country tour through the region this week. Political analysts say she will have a hard time finding support.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a recent trip to Brazil, publicly raised concerns about Mr. Chávez. Days later, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, in a meeting in Venezuela with Mr. Chávez and the leaders of Colombia and Argentina, pointedly said, "We don't accept defamation and insinuations against a compañero," meaning a close friend.
"Venezuela has the right to be a sovereign country, to make its own decisions," he added. (more)
To paraphrase Von Clausewitz: "(US) Diplomacy is a continuation of War by other means". Venezuela is a sovereign country. The Administration might want to look that up.