As Election Looms, Chávez Steps Up Rhetoric

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 16, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Carmen Godoy is sure the Yankees are plotting an invasion. She's heard her president say so over and over again in the decade he has been in power.

So at yet another pro-government rally -- one at which a band played a rousing version of "Yankee Go Home" -- Godoy expressed relief that four Russian naval vessels will arrive in Venezuela next month for joint exercises with Venezuela's military.

"We need help," said Godoy, 52. "We cannot wait and watch what happened to Iraq happen to us."

The message that the Bush administration has evil designs on Venezuela has been a cornerstone of state policy here, frequently repeated in speeches by President Hugo Chávez and other officials, as well as on news shows and in documentaries by the omnipresent state media.

But with the president's socialist party facing tough regional elections in November, the government is ramping up the warnings like never before and taking the requisite actions against what officials say are shadowy assassination plots and U.S.-orchestrated destabilizing plans.

Nothing Chávez has done in the past, though, compares to Venezuela's $1 billion weapons deal with Russia and military exercises that are bringing Russian warplanes and ships to the Caribbean for the first time since the Cold War.

Former officials in the Chávez administration, pollsters and political analysts say the president is trying to raise the specter of U.S. meddling and whip up his followers in order to deflect attention from such issues as mounting crime, high inflation and a shaky economy.

"This is something Chávez has used to his favor," said Milos Alcalay, who was Chávez's ambassador to the United Nations until 2004, when he resigned. "President Chávez has used his anti-Americanism as a form of government policy, not only internationally but also when faced with a series of errors that he cannot explain."

Chávez's strategy calls for discrediting opposition leaders as "Little Yankees" and as coup-plotters intent on selling out Venezuela to the imperialists. For Venezuelans, the message is that "if you vote for the opposition, you will be voting for the United States, for the people who want to invade our country," said Luis Vicente León, a pollster with Datanalysis, a Caracas polling firm.

In ratcheting up his quarrel with Washington, Chávez expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy last month in solidarity with his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had ousted the American ambassador in La Paz after accusing him of fomenting unrest. Chávez then traveled to Moscow, where the Kremlin extended a $1 billion loan for arms purchases and offered to help Venezuela develop nuclear energy.

U.S. officials have played down the naval maneuvers in the Caribbean, noting that the Russian vessels do not carry nuclear weapons.

But some former Venezuelan officials said that Chávez sees a parallel to the Cold War brinkmanship of the 1960s, when Cuba and the Soviet Union challenged the United States off the Florida coast.

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