Victory hasn’t softened Chavez

Times Staff Writer

If U.S.-Venezuela relations can’t get much worse, is there any hope for improvement during President Hugo Chavez’s third term? For the United States, which has made it clear it would like to reduce tensions, the answer is entirely up to Chavez.

“We don’t want confrontation with Venezuela -- on the contrary,” Thomas A. Shannon, U.S. undersecretary of State for Latin America, told reporters in London on Monday. “We’ve always looked for ways to deepen the dialogue with the government of President Chavez, and our hopes are that, maybe, at this moment he will show a greater interest.”

But after thumping challenger Manuel Rosales in Sunday’s presidential election, Chavez made insults instead of overtures.


Speaking to a throng outside the presidential palace in Caracas, the capital, Chavez referred to Venezuela’s No. 1 crude oil customer as the “empire” and to President Bush as the devil.

“We’ve taught a lesson in dignity to North American imperialism,” said Chavez, who won a third term that starts in February. He has been in power since early 1999.

The U.S. State Department’s reaction to Chavez’s victory underscored the chill in relations. U.S. officials praised Venezuelan voters on the election but did not congratulate Chavez.

“We commend the Venezuelan people for turning out in large numbers to exercise their right to vote and demonstrating a firm commitment to their constitutional processes,” spokesman Eric Watnik said. “We look forward to working with the Venezuelan government on issues of mutual interest.”

Why have U.S.-Venezuelan relations sunk so low?

The roots of Chavez’s antipathy rest in ideology, bitter history and overarching ambition, analysts say. He is a committed socialist to whom capitalism, free trade and globalization are anathema. He resents the United States’ tacit approval -- or orchestration, he alleges -- of a coup attempt against his government in 2002.

Chavez has ambitions of leading the Third World and needs a powerful enemy to galvanize his radical supporters inside and outside Venezuela, said Americo Martin, a Venezuelan political analyst and author.

But for relations to improve, Chavez would have to do more than tone down his rhetoric. The United States is demanding cooperation from Venezuela in fighting drug and human trafficking and in pursuing suspected terrorists.

The United States banned all U.S. weapons sales to Venezuela more than a year ago, and the embargo will remain as long as the three issues are not addressed. The ban also blocked the sale of Spanish and Brazilian aircraft that contained U.S. components. In response, Chavez signed deals this year to buy about 80 Russian airplanes and helicopters.

The United States and Venezuela acknowledge there is no dialogue. Some say Chavez may have gone so far down the rhetorical path in bashing the U.S. that there is no turning back.

Alberto Barrera, coauthor of a Chavez biography, “Chavez Out of Uniform,” said the former paratrooper wanted to be “a hero, a myth” to leftists, with Cuban leader Fidel Castro as his role model. For that Chavez needed “a big enemy, a huge empire to attack,” Barrera said.

“You have to understand that as an ex-military guy, Chavez lives on confrontation. He doesn’t know how to negotiate,” Barrera said.

Still, U.S. officials seem befuddled over why Chavez refuses to put U.S.-Venezuelan relations back on track, or to even talk.

U.S. Ambassador William R. Brownfield said: “We’d like to work on things we can agree on, concrete issues we can agree on such as counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism. More than a year ago, for example, the Venezuelan government drafted and asked us to sign an addendum to our counter-narcotics agreement. We agreed, and for an entire year we have been willing and waiting to sign it.”

Venezuela’s refusal to cooperate with U.S. efforts to combat drug trafficking comes at a time when as much as one-third of the estimated 650 tons of Colombian cocaine smuggled annually to U.S. and European markets moves through Venezuelan airstrips or shorelines, U.S. anti-drug authorities said.

In recent months, the U.S. has requested the extradition of three drug trafficking suspects, including a Colombian considered a “big fish.” Venezuela rejected the requests, and the Colombian escaped from jail. At the same time, the U.S. turned down three extradition requests by Venezuela.

Chavez refuses even token assistance in the U.S. government’s efforts to monitor the trafficking of illegal immigrants, prostitutes and other human cargo. When the U.S. government asks about suspected terrorists in Venezuela, its calls are not returned, U.S. officials say.

Venezuelan officials say the U.S. military engages in provocations, citing a recent maneuver off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast and military exercises in neighboring Colombia.

Election officials have not updated results since Sunday night, when about 80% of the ballots counted showed Chavez had 61% and Rosales 38%.

Meanwhile, Juan Enrique Fisher, who led a team of observers from the Organization of American States, congratulated Venezuelan officials for a “transparent and well-run election.” He said reports of malfunctions on voting equipment were due more to a lack of voter familiarity than to irregularities.

“We congratulate the Venezuelan people for their spirit of citizenship, President Chavez for his popular mandate and candidate Rosales for his civic spirit and for fortifying democracy,” Fisher said.