A thorn in the Andes


MORE THAN A RIDDLE, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become a nightmare for the Bush administration. Often and in no uncertain terms, Chavez has said he doesn’t like capitalism and despises President Bush. The feeling is mutual.

For the last seven years, the U.S. has tried different strategies to contain the restless Venezuelan at home and abroad. The hard-line approach failed in April 2002 when the Bush administration condoned a short-lived coup attempt. Recent efforts by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to isolate Chavez by portraying him as a danger to his neighbors also have failed, in large part due to Chavez’s cagey economic diplomacy and a hemispheric respect for leaders who stand up to Washington.

There is no question that Chavez is the legitimately elected leader of his country, but his somewhat cavalier attitude toward the rule of law is alarming. Recently, a state governor closely allied with Chavez ordered troops to seize an idled tomato-processing plant owned by the H.J. Heinz Co. Troops and former workers also seized the processing silos of Alimentos Polar, a top local food producer. Venepal, a bankrupt, privately owned paper-manufacturing firm, was expropriated and is now run by the state as a cooperative.


For the last four years, peasant farmers protected by Venezuelan authorities have moved onto private lands. A government panel is now considering the expropriation of 700 businesses deemed “idled or semi-idled.” Is an expropriation of the nation’s banking system also in the offing? The government has told several private banks that it intends to place two representatives on each of their governing boards.

The United States is likely to be saddled with Chavez as a hemispheric antagonist for some time to come, and Chavez’s influence will ebb and flow along with the price of oil, of which he has untold supplies. Washington is going to have to learn to tolerate him, and even neglect him on occasion. Like Fidel Castro, Chavez thrives on being vilified by the giant to the north, and the U.S. must learn not to humor him too much.