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The right way to tackle Chávez

By Steve Johnson | The Financial Times

Published: February 10 2005 02:00 | Last updated: February 10 2005 02:00 | Sir, If any approach towards Venezuela's polemical president is simplistic, it is the notion that you can defang a bully by being nice to him ("It is not good policy to single out Chávez for blame", January 29).

Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has done just about everything he said he would. He has crushed dissent, cowed civil society, infiltrated the ranks of the police and military with Cuban intelligence officers, and created multiple parallel political enforcement organisations that include so-called Bolivarian street mobs and rural guerrilla groups. He is purging the National Assembly of opposition and enjoys almost complete control over the country's courts. The national electoral authority answers to him and Venezuela's remaining profitable industry, the state oil company, is comfortably in his hands. Through recent purchases of arms and helicopters, he means to intimidate neighbours such as Colombia. After all, Mr Chávez recently said he had a duty to defend the Panama Canal and the Amazon River, neither of which is in Venezuela.

Mr Chávez plays oil politics as well, having cut shipments to the Dominican Republic for a year because Carlos Andrés Pérez, the former Venezuela president and his political foe, lived there. On the flip side, he sells to friends and pliant states at below-market prices and generous credit terms.

So far, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have avoided unnecessarily provoking the volatile leader. The comments by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, that he is a negative force in the region are mild compared with Mr Chávez's characterisation of George W. Bush as a "Nazi" and his recent public ridicule of Ms Rice.

Latin America again will be an ideological battlefield because Mr Chávez wants it that way. As your correspondent wisely suggests, the US should become more engaged in the region. To its credit, the Bush administration is standing on principle and discarding the notion that it will ever get a note from the fiery president that there will be "peace in our time".

Stephen Johnson, Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC 20002, US

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