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A Shift in Policy Toward Venezuela's Chavez

By Marcela Sanchez, reprinted from The Washington Post

WASHINGTON Thursday, May 20, 2004; 10:30 AM -- The yearlong countdown toward a democratic solution to Venezuela's political crisis is nearing an end, and the Bush administration is stepping up the pressure on President Hugo Chavez. State Department officials say they are talking with U.S. editorial writers, hoping to send a clear message to Chavez through the press: let the recall referendum happen or face the consequences.

Last May, the Organization of American States and the Carter Center brokered an agreement between Chavez's government and the opposition that was to bring about an "electoral exit" after months of division and unrest. In an interview last week with Washington Post editors and reporters, a senior State Department official left no doubt that Chavez's opposition has gathered enough valid signatures to authorize the referendum and that Chavez's claims of "mega fraud" are wholly unfounded.

Moreover, the official said, "there is very little Chavez wouldn't do to hold on to power. ... What's happening is a consolidation of a dictatorship (and) we have to do our best to stop that."

Make no doubt about it: this is a significant change for the Bush administration. After publicly supporting a short-lived coup against Chavez two years ago -- an initial misstep -- Washington had preferred to remain silent or quietly encourage the work of other leaders in the region. Washington is now more confrontational. As the diplomat, who spoke on condition he not be named, put it "if things do not develop in a positive way ... you are going to see the United States taking a more proactive role."

This more proactive approach has yet to be articulated. If, as the administration contends, Chavez is following in the footsteps of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and planning to stay in power for 40 years or more, one might expect the administration to press for more than a rhetorical confrontation.

Arguably, there is not a whole lot more Washington can do. It has tried the diplomatic route, requiring what the official termed a lot of "heavy lifting" with little to show for the effort. And if something beyond a diplomatic solution is even considered, the administration would have a hard time finding the resources considering its current obligations, especially in Iraq.

Chavez seems aware that there is no clear course of action and he has gladly filled in the blanks. In an effort to galvanize support, he conjures up "evidence" of U.S.-led conspiracies to oust him, citing U.S. connections with Miami anti-Castro forces and Colombia's anti-leftist military.

Sunday, just days after Venezuelan police arrested Colombian paramilitaries allegedly plotting to kill him, Chavez declared he would arm his own militias to protect the country from a U.S. invasion to seize "one of the biggest oil reserves of the world."

Whatever the Bush administration's "or else" turns out to be, it is clear that future action will be shaped by the same two factors that have consistently influenced U.S. Latin America policy: the anti-Castro focus of top policy makers and commercial and big business interests.

Current Latin America policy is almost obsessively Castro-centric. Chavez's avowed allegiance to Castro has therefore pitted him directly against the individuals in the administration who have been shaping U.S. anti-Castro policy for years. Coupled with Chavez's public insults of Bush, and the apparent offense taken by the U.S. president, policy toward Venezuela has taken on personal, anti-Chavez tones and does not look much beyond his ouster.

The security of Venezuelan oilfields is certainly among the administration's top considerations. The United States purchases 2.6 million barrels of oil from the South American nation every day. This puts Venezuela in the ranks of the United States' top four providers of crude, with Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

Chavez then may do what he pleases with the referendum and face little consequence. As long as he keeps oil flowing to the United States and the United States remains engaged elsewhere, it is highly unlikely that Washington will consider recourse against Chavez beyond rhetoric. As Ambassador William Brownfield predicted Tuesday in his confirmation hearing to become U.S. envoy to Venezuela, it would be a "decision of last recourse" for either Washington or Caracas to pull the plug on oil flows.

The demise of the referendum would obviously be bad news for Venezuela. But any U.S. unilateral intervention would be worse news for the region.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

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