After Haiti, Venezuela is wary of US interference

The US response in Haiti has divided Latin Americans over US policy - especially in politically torn Venezuela.

Whether Washington is a hero or hangman of democracy in Latin America may be a matter of political perspective.

Haitians watched last week as US agents whisked leftist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide off to the heart of Africa in what Mr. Aristide describes as a kidnapping. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, another leftist who has antagonized Washington, has harshly accused the White House of backing coup-plotters against him. Critical of US action in Haiti, he warned the US on Friday to "get its hands off Venezuela."

The Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, an organization of mostly English-speaking nations, is calling for Aristide's departure to be investigated. More than a dozen Caribbean nations have refused to join any peacekeeping force there.

Washington has reformed from the days when it supported vicious Latin American dictatorships, but it has not embraced democracy unreservedly, says Robert Fatton, a Haitian-American professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

"There have been changes in support for democracy, but they have to be democracies that the US likes," he says.

Haitians and Venezuelans alike are divided over US actions. What Chávez and Aristide loyalists may consider American intrusion and coup-mongering is simply support for democracy in the eyes of many of their opponents, who have accused both presidents of ruling authoritatively and violating human rights.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched on Saturday to protest the denial of a presidential recall vote. The demonstration was more peaceful than last week's rioting when Chávez critics burned tires and blockaded streets.

Protester Anais Viloria, an attorney, says he favors US involvement in Venezuela. "The United States is a guarantor of democracy," he says.

But across town at the National Electoral Council's headquarters, pro-Chávez demonstrators waved banners saying "CIA out of Venezuela." Security guard Otilio Bencomo charges the US with plotting to remove Chavez by any means in order to cheaply obtain Venezuela's oil.

"[Washington] wants a government which will kneel down before them, in order to take Venezuela's natural resources," he says.

Chávez is trying to derail the effort to hold a recall vote. Opposition organizations turned in 3.4 million signatures last December, but the electoral council ruled last week that only 1.8 million of those were valid - far below the 2.4 million required. Chávez opponents charge the government-dominated council with using unfair technicalities. Those whose signatures were ruled doubtful will have an opportunity to confirm their signatures during a "repair period," but the opposition claims the electoral council has set conditions designed to frustrate that goal.

The US has earned Chávez's ire by sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-Chávez organizations here and by issuing a steady stream of criticisms of Chávez policies. On Saturday, President Bush expressed support for the referendum process.

At the same time, Washington's abandonment of Aristide has set a dangerous precedent for other leaders, Mr. Fatton says. "It generates a lot of problems for a government which was elected and becomes unpopular," he says.

In Chile, where dictator Augusto Pinochet's government murdered thou- sands of leftists - and enjoyed US backing during much of his regime - the public attitude toward Washington is moving on, says Guillermo Holzman, a University of Chile professor of politics. Chileans are dubious about the US's democratic values, he says, but for new reasons: the Bush administration's unilateral actions on issues such as the Kyoto Protocol and the war in Iraq.

"It's not clear whether [US actions] are to support democracy or protect its interests," Mr. Holzman says.

Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says the White House has repeatedly fumbled - and damaged its image - in Latin America because the terror war has distracted its attention. "[A problem] reaches a crisis point and then it's too late, and Washington reacts badly," he says.

Carlos Gervasoni, a political science professor at Catholic University in Buenos Aires, says Washington's response to Venezuela's 2002 coup caused it much more damage in Latin America than did its recent actions in Haiti. In Haiti, he argues, the democratic succession was preserved following Aristide's departure. But Washington gave an extremely negative signal two years ago when it welcomed the de facto government that ousted Chavez and dissolved the constitution and parliament.

"Venezuela was the Bush administration's one opportunity to support democracy, and it didn't," he said.

But, Mr. Gervasoni says, by restricting itself to a peacekeeping force in Haiti, Washington avoided another international relations disaster in a region sensitive about its role in history as the US's backyard. "A military intervention would have been rejected in Latin America," he says. "That is Latin America's greatest fear."

Material from Reuters was used for this report.

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