Slowly, Chávez isolates himself from world

Venezuela's leader has blasted the US and threatened a break with Colombia.

When bombs blasted the Spanish Embassy and the Colombian Consulate in Caracas last week, Venezuelan officials denounced the attacks. They issued a flurry of statements insisting that affairs between Venezuela and the two nations hadn't been damaged.

But that wasn't saying much. Venezuela's foreign relations weren't very good to begin with. The powerful explosive devices dramatically punctuated the discord that exists between Venezuela and other countries, both in South America and overseas.

Because of his autocratic leanings, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez fell out of favor with the international community long ago. More recently, the international community appears to have fallen out of favor with Mr. Chávez.

"Chávez is willing to sever ties to the international community," says Miguel Diaz, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In recent weeks, diplomatic noises coming from foreign capitals rose a notch with the detention of Carlos Fernandez, head of Venezuela's largest business-owners organization and a key leader of the 2-1/2-month general strike aimed at ousting Chávez that fizzled in early February. Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS); Spain's Foreign Minister Ana Palacios; and US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher all protested the arrest.

Chávez, in turn, blasted the governments of Spain and the US for "meddling" in Venezuela's affairs. He was so incensed that he threatened to break off diplomatic ties with Colombia, whose foreign minister the week before accused Chávez of meeting with Colombian rebels.

Two days later, both Colombia and Spain saw their diplomatic compounds in Caracas shattered by bombs; five people were injured. The US Embassy, citing a credible threat of an attack, closed down for a day. Leaflets found at the crime scenes warned American Ambassador Charles Shapiro, the OAS, the CIA, and anyone else who would listen that "the revolution doesn't need your selfish intervention." The Venezuelan government denies that its sympathizers were behind the blasts, but the fliers echoed Chávez's position: other countries involved are not to interfere in Venezuela's internal affairs.

"The only pressure he really feels and responds to is that coming from Venezuelans themselves to remove him from power," says Mr. Diaz. "Once that disappeared, there was really little that could move him."

From the beginning of his administration in 1998, Chávez raised eyebrows in foreign capitals by paying official visits to Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. While Venezuela's president has remained formally within the law, his opponents see his rewriting of the Constitution, his reshuffling of the supreme court, his crackdown on the media and, most recently, his jailing of political enemies as antidemocratic measures. His opponents worry that Chávez's demonization of them is leading to greater violence. On Sunday, a car bomb went off in the western oil city of Maracaibo, where many who were involved in the strike work and live. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast.

According to Michael Shifter, senior analyst with InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington, Chávez's strong-arm style has unnerved a region that saw more than its share of authoritarian regimes in the '80s and '90s. "You talk about rule of law and institutions, and you have this guy who comes on the scene and shows disdain for that, and says, 'I was elected by the people, and that's enough,' " Mr. Shifter says. "It's a nightmare for people in the region, because they've seen this movie before, and it doesn't have a happy ending."

Venezuela's status as one of the world's largest petroleum producers has allowed Chávez to be recalcitrant when foreign diplomats call for concessions. The US, long accustomed to being the dominant player in the hemisphere, has had to tread lightly in Venezuela ever since it welcomed a coup that temporarily ousted Chávez last April.

But some analysts note that the thrust of collective mediation efforts, such as those sponsored by the OAS, are remarkably in line with the diplomatic will of the United States.

"The 'international community' is often a euphemism for the 'United States,' and it's not that much different in this case," says Mark Weisbrot, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "Given the United States's hostility to Chávez, I think the [Venezuelan] government has been actually quite friendly and willing to work with everyone."

The government had been meeting with the opposition at talks mediated by the OAS, but last Wednesday government representatives presented a declaration rejecting international interference in Venezuela's crisis.

The statement read in part: "No foreign government or institution ... may pretend to guide the Venezuelan people, nor influence the functioning of national public power."

Citing security concerns, the government side was a no-show at meetings scheduled for the rest of the week. The messages coming from the Chávez administration are clear: Other countries may not like what they see in Venezuela, but there isn't much that they can do about it.

"There's really no arm-twisting going on behind the scenes," says a Western diplomat in Caracas. "The international community has no leverage - there's no foreign aid to cut, and people need the oil."

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