Hugo Chávez tightens his grip in Venezuela. Can US do anything about it?
With the US focused on other parts of the world, Latin American neighbor Hugo Chávez has tightened his hold on power. The next Congress may press Obama to act, but what are his options?
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“It is shameful that Chávez’s actions to usurp power and impose Castro-style control over the media have been met with barely a whimper from most member-states” of the OAS, an organization she said is “supposed to promote and protect democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”Skip to next paragraph
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US relations with Venezuela, which have been on a downward trajectory over most of Chávez’s 12 years in power, fell another notch this month when Chávez officially rejected the Obama administration’s choice for US ambassador to Caracas. Chávez initially indicated his acceptance of veteran diplomat Larry Palmer, but reversed course after Mr. Palmer said in his Senate confirmation hearing that members of Chávez’s government maintain ties to leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. Palmer also affirmed that morale in the Venezuelan military is low – a comment that some regional experts say may have been a bridge too far for Chávez, who rose from within the Venezuelan Army.
US talks of 'consequences'
The State Department said in response that Chávez’s decision would have “consequences” for the bilateral relationship, but so far no word has emerged of just what form those consequences might take. US Rep. Connie Mack (R) Florida has called for Venezuela to be placed on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, but even Ros-Lehtinen has suggested that might be going too far.
Placing Venezuela on the terrorism list – based on the alleged links to the Colombian guerrillas – would entail certain economic sanctions, while Venezuela’s business community has been one of the staunchest elements of Chávez’s opposition. In addition, Venezuela is a major supplier of crude oil to the US.
The Inter-American Dialogue’s Mr. Shifter says there is no question that Chávez has been tightening his grip on the reins of power to the point where it’s difficult to call it anything other than autocratic rule. But at the same time, he says, Chávez can dismiss the accusations of “coup d’état” because he has remained within the confines of the constitution to pursue his “power grab.”
“Experience tells us that this is what Chávez does when he faces a political challenge, he tightens his grip – but he does it while preserving a fig leaf of legitimacy,” says Shifter. “In this case a legitimate national congress aided him in further reducing the semblance of democracy and the rule of law.”