For Venezuela, U.S., a (Very) Little Civility

President Hugo Chavez, shown at a rally on Wednesday, has been a constant antagonist of the United States.
President Hugo Chavez, shown at a rally on Wednesday, has been a constant antagonist of the United States. (Miraflores Press Via Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 10, 2006

After an especially ugly week in the hostile relationship between the Bush administration and the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's envoy here tried yesterday to salvage some civility, saying his country sought "mature and rational relations" with Washington and would remain a "reliable" source of energy to all foreign customers, including the United States.

The State Department responded in kind, with its spokesman saying Washington was "open to a good relationship with Venezuela" and hoped for a "positive one." The spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that the two countries were cooperating in the fight against drugs and that the administration was prepared to work with governments across the political spectrum, including those with "left-of-center" views.

But the exchange did little to dispel a growing sense among officials and analysts that the current political breach between Caracas and Washington -- still major oil trading partners and former longtime democratic allies -- is becoming potentially irreparable.

In the past week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has compared Chavez to Adolf Hitler, and the administration's top intelligence official, John D. Negroponte, has condemned his ties with Iran and North Korea. Venezuela has expelled a U.S. naval attache on charges of spying, and Washington has expelled a senior Venezuelan diplomat in return.

Meanwhile, rumors have circulated in both capitals that the United States may put Venezuela on a list of states that sponsor terrorism, a designation that would make it ineligible for most U.S. aid and programs. A State Department spokesman yesterday declined to say whether such a move was being considered.

There were other signs that the antagonism was hardening between the United States and Chavez, a self-styled revolutionary leader and protege of Cuba's Fidel Castro. First elected president in 1998 and reelected in 2000, he survived a coup attempt two years later and has since repeatedly accused the United States of seeking to overthrow him. He has vowed to thwart a U.S.-backed hemispheric free-trade pact and forge an alternative economic pact within Latin America.

In an interview Wednesday, the senior State Department official for Latin America, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., described the U.S. differences with Chavez as "a battle of ideas . . . a battle that we shouldn't be afraid of." He depicted Chavez as a defiant but comic figure, "standing there and desperately taking swings at us. We must go around him and engage the rest of the region in our common positive agenda," he said.

Shannon, a scholarly diplomat, is viewed among Latin America experts here as less ideologically allergic to Chavez than his recent predecessors, and he said he hoped the two governments could find common ground on a number of issues. But yesterday, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez complained that he had not been able to see Shannon, although he said he has traveled to several states to promote Venezuela's project to assist poor families through home heating oil subsidies.

"We are not against the United States. We are against certain policies of the United States, but we have a lot of important things in common," Alvarez told journalists. "We are not a threat to the national interests of the United States or anyone else. Why are they trying to portray us as anti-American?"

Several experts on U.S.-Latin American relations in Washington said both governments were to blame for the increasingly hostile rhetoric and plummeting relations. They suggested that provocative comments such as those made by Rumsfeld could play into Chavez's hands as he seeks to rally domestic support against a foreign enemy.

"The State Department is clearly attempting to set a different tone, but there are other voices in the administration that reflect knee-jerk Cold War thinking," said Julia Sweig, an associate scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Chavez has figured out how to play those cards really well, but it would be a mistake to ascribe to individuals like Chavez and Castro the deep social cleavages in the region."

Otto Reich, a former senior State Department official who is now a private consultant, said that the Bush administration had largely refrained from verbal mud-slinging and that Chavez was responsible for provoking U.S. hostility. "We didn't start this," he said. "If there is going to be change, it has to come from the other side."

Reich said that there was little chance other Latin American leaders, even those with left-of-center views, would follow Chavez's leadership, but that Chavez could do serious regional harm. Those leaders should be "concerned that he is giving all of Latin America a bad name," Reich said. "The region badly needs foreign investment, and it doesn't help to have him running around with a red beret and incendiary rhetoric."

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