With oil, security and Chávez in the mix, the relationship challenge continues

By Andrea Daza Tapia
El Mundo Economía y Negocios, Caracas
Friday, December 18, 2009; 2:07 PM

Introduction: The Empire Strikes Back

Darth Vader is pursuing Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia Organa. But in this journalistic adaptation of "Star Wars," the United States "is no longer acting as an Empire," said Michael Shifter, vice president for policy and director of the Andean program at Inter-American Dialogue, a well-known Washington think tank. "Obama has frustrated them," the political scientist joked one day in September in his Connecticut Avenue office. But, he said, the problems in the bilateral relationship between Venezuela and the United States have not disappeared with the change in the White House. "Iran is a cause for concern," he warned. "Obama is very pragmatic and he will defend the interests of the United States. The mistrust has been very great." In any case, for the moment, he said, "it doesn't make sense to criticize Obama."

These reflections bring to a close the saga begun in El Mundo Economía y Negocios.Questions remain: Will Venezuela's efforts to improve its image in the United States prove successful? Will that be beneficial for banker Eligio Cedeño, who has also hired U.S. lobbying firms as he takes his cause beyond the borders of his country? In both cases, is the strategy the right one?

Shifter maintained that "the basic dilemma is that there are no prospects for change." The tension continues, he said, and no one knows who the bad guy is in this movie.

WASHINGTON -- They were bored. For the journalists covering the United Nations General Assembly in 2006, it had been a routine session.

Then a voice from the rostrum boomed, "The threat they have is in their own house. The devil is at home." The voice continued: "The devil, the devil himself. Yesterday, the devil was here."

All tedium ended there. The reference was to George W. Bush, president of the United States.

"The devil came here yesterday. Yes, the devil came here, right here." Then there was a pause as the speaker, Hugo Chávez Frías, the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, crossed himself. "And it smells of sulfur, still today."

Delegates from other countries pumped up the volume on their headsets, not wanting to miss a word of the simultaneous translation of Chávez's Spanish. The journalists went to work. "It was incredible," said one who was there.

When a Venezuelan reporter asked Peter Quilter, a senior professional staff member for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "What do people think about us?" he replied immediately: "They think you people are crazy."

He was joking, of course. Quilter is from Argentina, and he was talking about the general U.S. perception of Latin Americans. He turned serious, and the view was even less encouraging. "President Chávez has changed the dynamic," he said. In the case of Venezuela, it might be true that "any publicity is good publicity," he said. After thinking about the high-volume rhetoric that has come from Chávez's lips, he added, "He's a bit toxic, that guy."

Words are only on paper. Actions rock the boat. After so many references to "the Devil" this and "the Empire" that, when does one tell the Venezuelan leader that enough is enough? How does one deal with all this, he pondered aloud.

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