Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a lucky man. Not only is the elected leader of the world's fifth-largest oil producer reveling in today's market bonanza, he's also profiting from the blunders of opponents, using them to advance his so-called Bolivarian Revolution, at home and throughout Latin America. The recent brouhaha created by evangelist Pat Robertson's outlandish and noxious suggestion (for which he later apologized) that the U.S. government assassinate Chavez highlights a tremendous challenge facing the Bush administration in the Western Hemisphere.
Nearly seven years after Chavez came to power, the U.S. government is still at a loss as to how to deal with him. To be sure, Chavez's Venezuela poses a real conundrum. But Washington's messages -- sometimes conciliatory, sometimes confrontational, sometimes contradictory -- are largely reactive and suggest little in the way of strategic thinking.
This confusion has been costly. It makes outbursts such as Robertson's -- which deflect our attention from the challenge posed by Chavez and distort our understanding of what is going on in the region -- more likely, and more likely to be believed by Latin Americans. The predictable (and justifiable) barrage of criticism against Robertson's outrageous suggestion of "regime change" unfortunately seems to encourage the opposite attitude: that the United States should not take Chavez too seriously.
But complacency is not the answer. Buoyed by a remarkable oil windfall and rising anti-Americanism in Latin America, Chavez is aggressively using rhetoric that bashes the Bush administration and claims the banner of social justice to consolidate his power at home and extend his influence in the region and beyond. He is at once a throwback in his disdain for liberal democracy and a sophisticate when it comes to playing the game of global politics. Dismissing him as just another Latin American strongman would be naive.
The Venezuelan leader is waging battles on several fronts. A great deal is at stake, including the prospects for liberal democracy in Latin America. Chavez is constructing a model of domestic governance that is inimical to democratic values and individual rights. He appears to be embarked on a mission that is not only virulently anti-U.S. but that seeks to push the region back toward authoritarian politics.
Chavez's chief strength is his claim to a populist model that recognizes real social injustices and resentments in Venezuela and elsewhere. But his appeals, however seductive, are in the final analysis illusory. Despite frustration about Latin America's lack of democratic and economic progress over the past decade, it would be tragic if the region regressed to past eras. The challenge for U.S. policy is to contest the validity of Chavez's claims and his grandiose but wrongheaded designs. Policy alternatives need to be devised that come to grips with harsh realities but do not jettison modern Western values.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Latin America has in recent years become less receptive to constructive U.S. responses. Moreover, the notion that the Bush administration would contemplate "taking out" (in Robertson's words) someone such as Chavez has a ring of plausibility in the region. Repeated official denials notwithstanding, the Bush administration's failure to condemn Robertson's statements in sufficiently strong terms only added to the already high levels of distrust.
And how could Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's denial ("our department doesn't do that kind of thing") not ring false, given that he had just come back from his third visit in 10 months to Latin America, where he said both Cuba and Venezuela were trying to destabilize Bolivia? Such pronouncements -- Rumsfeld said there was evidence but presented none -- sound especially hollow in view of the Bush administration's initial applause for the April 2002 military coup against Chavez.
In short, suspicions abound. The weight of history -- repeated attempts in previous decades to topple governments and risible plots to assassinate Fidel Castro are not easily forgotten -- compounded by what are widely seen as U.S. violations of international norms and standards in Iraq and prison camps in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have effectively depleted Washington's credibility throughout the Americas.
Upgrading relationships with natural U.S. partners in the region -- Mexico and Brazil, for example -- is the best way to preserve the hard-fought political gains in Latin America and keep the Chavez government's actions in check. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Latin America in May seemed to augur well in that sense. Unfortunately, there has been little follow-through.
Most of the region's governments shun divisiveness and still share interests and values with the United States. There are opportunities to engage Latin America more vigorously and help relieve acute social distress and political uncertainty. But restoring trust is essential. Shedding the mind-set that takes the region for granted -- and sees it as our "back yard" -- would be a good place to start.
The writer is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University.