Frustrated U.S. Finds Few Willing to Join Anti-Chavez Coalition

Times Staff Writers

U.S. policymakers striving to curb the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are confronting a dilemma: Like a prizefighter, he seems to get stronger with every sparring session.

The problem grew more urgent this week, after a series of verbal blows left U.S.-Venezuelan relations at a new low.

The United States slammed Chavez on Thursday for not doing enough to stop drug traffickers, and the Venezuelan used his United Nations General Assembly address to accuse the U.S. of practicing its own brand of terrorism.

Current and former U.S. officials interviewed this week were at odds over whether Chavez represents a real threat or should just be left to bluster.

“He gains from an image of being meddlesome,” said Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College and an expert on Venezuela.


“Whether or not Chavez is meddlesome is immaterial,” he said. “You don’t have to be able to meddle, just have the image of being able to.”

All of the officials interviewed, despite their differences on what to do about him, see Chavez as a potentially destabilizing force whose actions should be monitored.

“We don’t want a shouting match with Chavez because in a way it favors him,” one State Department official said. “But it’s a mistake to dismiss Chavez as a blowhard. Oil at $67 a barrel gives him lots of resources to play with.” Venezuela provides about 15% of U.S. oil imports.

The socialist leader has offered financial aid to radical groups and subsidized oil to neighboring countries, including Cuba.

Chavez has criticized Plan Colombia, the U.S.-sponsored war on drugs and guerrilla forces in that South American country. Chavez’s arms purchases from Russia, Spain and other countries have drawn fire from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said he feared that the weapons could end up in the hands of Colombian revolutionaries.

There also are complaints that his government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and undermining its political opponents, the media and judiciary.

But Chavez has managed to gain enough democratic credibility to temper criticism.

“Chavez has been elected three times and has submitted most of his reform measures to public referenda, and he has won every time,” said Bruce Bagley, a professor at the University of Miami. “Those democratic credentials have given Chavez some immunity.”

U.S. complaints fail to resonate in much of Latin America, where disenchantment with Washington’s open-markets agenda has pushed politics leftward. These nations have not responded to Rumsfeld’s efforts to mount a collective opposition to Chavez.

“There is a long tradition in Latin America of not criticizing another country’s internal affairs because each country has its own problems, its own blemishes, and they don’t want the habit to spread,” Corrales said.

The difficulty of using a collective approach to dealing with Chavez became clear in June at an Organization of American States summit in Florida, where U.S. officials tried to persuade members to adopt a proposal committing the body to intervene in a member nation’s affairs if democracy there faced a serious threat. But OAS countries believed that the proposal was aimed at Venezuela and shot it down.

“South Americans have to live with him. They want to maintain cordial relations with him,” said Daniel Erikson, a Caribbean expert at Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Some say Chavez neatly co-opted potential criticism from 15 Caribbean countries by signing them up with PetroCaribe, a pact that will give them cut-rate Venezuelan oil. The country has also made oil available to Ecuador and Uruguay.

John Walsh, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the United States may have lost sight of the fact that Chavez has gained popularity by addressing the issues that matter most to Latin Americans: reducing poverty and improving education and health. The U.S. focus on free trade and terrorism has not resonated in the region.

“It’s a multipolar world,” Walsh said. “We can’t call all the shots all the time.”