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Is the United States' nightmare of “a second Cuba” coming true in Venezuela?

From The Economist

Feb 24th 2005 | CARACAS AND SÃO PAULO | EVER since he was first elected as Venezuela's president in 1998, Hugo Chávez has been fond of anti-American rhetoric. American officials long ignored this, preferring to watch what the Venezuelan did rather than what he said. Since Mr Chávez trounced his opponents in a recall referendum last August, not only has he turned up the volume of his “anti-imperialist” pronouncements, but some of his words are turning into deeds. As a result, some in Washington are starting to become alarmed about Mr Chávez and the wider regional implications of his leftist-nationalist “revolution”.

Mr Chávez, a former army officer, recently declared himself to be a Fidelista, a follower, that is, of Cuba's communist president, Fidel Castro, his closest ally. He has ordered Venezuela's armed forces to draw up a new Cuban-style strategy in which the top priority has become preparing to fight a war of resistance against a hypothetical invasion by the United States, now seen as the principal adversary. To this end, Mr Chávez has recently ordered a doubling of the army's reserve, to more than 100,000 troops under his personal command. “Popular defence units” of 50 to 500 civilians are to be set up in workplaces and on farms.

At the same time, the president is shopping for arms. In recent months, he has bought from Russia 40 Mi35 helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. He is negotiating for up to 24 Brazilian Super-Tucano ground-attack planes and four Spanish naval corvettes. The United States has protested to Russia over its arms sales, and wonders out loud what they are for. So do the armed forces in Colombia, the Americans' closest ally in the region, with which Venezuela shares a disputed border. The answer, say Venezuelan officials, is partly to replace outdated kit, and partly to do what both the United States and Colombia have been pressing for: to defend the border against incursions by Colombian leftist guerrillas, rightist paramilitaries and drug-traffickers.

A senior Colombian official asks what will happen to the Venezuelan army's existing rifles. He fears that these, and perhaps some of the ammunition for the new Kalashnikovs, will find their way to the FARC guerrillas in their country, who are ideological soulmates of Mr Chávez.

A second issue on which Venezuela's stance is changing is oil. The United States has long been the main market for Venezuela's oil exports. Now Mr Chávez is negotiating trade and investment deals with Russia, Brazil, Iran and China. The next step, some in Washington worry, will be that Venezuela will start diverting its oil from the United States to China. That is not an immediate possibility: China lacks refineries to process Venezuela's heavy crude. But it may happen in the medium term. Mr Chávez has signalled a desire to sell Citgo, a state-owned Venezuelan company that refines and retails the country's oil in the United States. Even so, Venezuela's foreign minister stressed this week that his country will “always be a reliable supplier to the United States”.

A third controversy is Mr Chávez's tightening grip at home. Since the referendum, the opposition has all but disappeared as a coherent force. The chavista majority in the legislature has appointed an expanded—and avowedly “revolutionary”—supreme court, which in turn has named a new electoral authority, with a 4-1 pro-government majority.

These developments have produced differing reactions across the Americas. In recent weeks, the United States has unleashed a barrage of criticism of Mr Chávez. Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, called his government a “negative force” in the region and some aspects of his rule “very deeply troubling”.

For half a century, American policy in Latin America has been dominated by the desire to prevent a “second Cuba”. Some officials in Washington fear that is what is now emerging in Venezuela. They also worry that Venezuela may be soft on “narco-terrorism”, and trying to export its “revolution” to the rest of the region. As a result, they want to isolate Mr Chávez.

But George Bush is finding it hard to persuade the rest of Latin America to do this. Last week, Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, met Mr Chávez, putting a diplomatic face on a bitter dispute following the abduction in Caracas and subsequent arrest in Colombia of a senior FARC leader. However temporary, this rapprochement, brokered in part by Mr Castro and backed by Brazil, Chile and Peru, ended up making the United States, rather than Venezuela, look isolated. One day later, Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, visited Caracas to seal a “strategic alliance”, signing two dozen trade and investment accords. Lula even praised Venezuelan democracy, to the dismay of the remnants of the opposition, which insists that the referendum was rigged.

Should the region be worried, as America argues? The Colombian official, noting Mr Chávez's speeches about recreating the “greater Colombia” that in the 1820s briefly united the two countries under his hero, Simón Bolívar, is convinced that Venezuela, despite its repeated denials, is helping the FARC.

Brazil, whose president represents a more moderate brand of leftism than Mr Chávez's, takes a more relaxed view. According to a senior Brazilian diplomat in Brasília, the referendum removed any doubts about Mr Chávez's democratic legitimacy. Brazil does not see any danger of an arms race—indeed, nobody objects to the mooted sale of Super-Tucanos. Some Brazilians see dealing with Venezuela as a way of reducing the risk of intervention by the United States, whose presence in Colombia they dislike. The diplomat notes that Brazil has sealed similar “strategic alliances” with Argentina and Peru. Brazil's dialogue with Venezuela has the blessing of Washington.

The prevailing attitude in Latin America is that Mr Chávez has not yet crossed the line between democracy and authoritarianism—and that he is unlikely to do so unless he feels cornered by the United States. According to this view, Mr Chávez's “revolution”, paid for by oil wealth, would be hard to imitate elsewhere. So, it is argued, there is more to be gained by engaging Mr Chávez in a democratic South America than by isolating him.

Certainly, Mr Chávez's intentions are sufficiently ambiguous to warrant close scrutiny by South America's democrats. The United States this week dismissed claims by Mr Chávez and Mr Castro that it is planning to assassinate the Venezuelan leader. Any attempt to execute “regime change” in Venezuela—such as the failed coup in 2002 which the United States did not condemn—would be rejected in the region as the ousting of an elected leader. But whatever the neighbours say, rising tension between the United States and Venezuela will be a dominant theme in the region for the foreseeable future.

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