As protests grow against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Bush administration is increasingly worried that Chavez is facing a political crisis that could destabilize one of the top three suppliers of oil to the United States and spill into neighboring countries, most notably Colombia.
"Venezuela is in a really precarious and dangerous position right now," said a State Department official. "If Chavez doesn't fix things soon, he's not going to finish his term."
U.S. officials and Latin American diplomats say their primary goal is to avoid political stalemate in Venezuela and, if Chavez teeters and falls, any backsliding from democracy. Three military officers recently demanded Chavez's resignation, although their appeals triggered no immediate support within the armed forces.
The White House long tolerated Chavez's maverick populism and his tendency to tweak the United States -- he embraced Cuban President Fidel Castro and opposed U.S. anti-narcotics aid to Colombia, for example. But his criticism of the U.S. war against terrorism and his sharp-tongued response to domestic political opponents changed the dynamic.
Underscoring the administration's concern, President Bush declined to invite Chavez to join him at a meeting next month with Andean presidents in Lima, Peru. When Chavez learned that he would not be included, he personally asked at least two of the heads of state that they intercede with Bush on his behalf, according to diplomatic sources.
Earlier this month, two prominent Bush administration officials publicly criticized Chavez on Capitol Hill.
CIA Director George J. Tenet told the Senate intelligence committee that he was "particularly concerned" about events in Venezuela and predicted the "crisis atmosphere is likely to worsen" at a time when Latin America is becoming "increasingly volatile." Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cited a series of disturbing decisions.
"We've had our ambassador go in on a couple of occasions, and he becomes quite defensive," Powell said. He added that U.S. diplomats have asked Latin American allies to press Chavez to aid the anti-terror war and take stronger economic steps.
Governments of the countries surrounding Venezuela suspect Chavez has gone beyond incendiary rhetoric and now backs opposition groups in their countries, according to one Latin American diplomat. He pointed to a rise in Venezuelan nationalism and disputes with Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Guyana, Trinidad and Colombia, where Chavez is suspected of supporting anti-government rebels.
Chavez promised a leftist revolution when he was elected in 1998. He crafted an anti-American image while retaining the United States as Venezuela's biggest oil customer. U.S. annoyance turned to anger in October when Chavez displayed a photograph of dead Afghan children, said the Americans were "fighting terror with terror" and called on the Bush administration to stop "the slaughter of innocents."
The State Department recalled ambassador Donna Hrinak for "consultations." When she returned, she had what one U.S. official called a "very difficult meeting" with Chavez, in which she told him "to keep his mouth shut on these important issues."
Chavez also dented relations during a tour of fellow OPEC countries when he visited Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, despite a pledge that Tripoli would not be on the itinerary. Chavez also has visited Cuba and OPEC members Iran and Iraq. The United States considers all four countries to be state sponsors of terrorism.
"He drops in in some of the strangest countries to visit," Powell said. "I'm not sure what inspiration he thinks he gets or what benefit he gives to the Venezuelan people from dropping in and visiting some of these despotic regimes."
Chavez has done his rhetorical best to demonize much of the media, the trade unions, the wealthy elite and the business community. By issuing decrees and becoming what Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) called "basically a one-man government," Chavez has solidified his power while drawing criticism on human rights grounds.
The Venezuelan economy has been declining along with oil prices. Chavez's once tremendous popularity has ebbed. A one-day general strike on Dec. 10 was followed by mass protest on Jan. 23.
Opponents are energized, but they have no coherent plan to overcome an elected president whose term does not expire until 2005. A senior politician in another Andean country said the domestic turmoil is "going so fast. It has its own rhythm." He cautioned that the appearance of a U.S. determination to replace Chavez could build domestic support for him.
The Bush administration is telling Chavez supporters and opponents that it is worried about a potential constitutional crisis, but intends to avoid being drawn into Venezuelan domestic politics. Said a State Department official: "We're not going to provide the solution."
When Air Force Col. Pedro Soto called on Feb. 7 for Chavez to resign, triggering further street protests, Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria demanded that Soto obey orders, calling his statement "unacceptable." Gaviria cited the need to preserve "the democracies which have been built with so much effort in this hemisphere."
Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), said the Bush administration must send a message to the Venezuelan opposition that "those who attempt in any way to undermine a legitimately elected government will receive no help, no embrace, from Washington."
That, indeed, remains administration policy, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters this week. "Our view remains the same, whichever side is threatening democracy," he said. "And that is that democratic institutions in Venezuela and elsewhere need to be respected, and that any changes that occur need to be democratic and constitutional."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.