What the US can do as Venezuela teeters

Whichever course of action Bush chooses to head off more violence, others are ready to criticize.

As Venezuela, the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States, sinks deeper into political chaos, the US has a key role to play in avoiding a second civil conflict on its back doorstep.

But it's still dragging baggage from its long history of interventionism in Latin America. It's also smarting from its bumbling reaction to Venezuela's upheaval earlier this year, when it rushed to bestow approval on the short-lived ouster of President Hugo Chávez.

Focused on Iraq and the war on terrorism, the US looked unprepared for Venezuela's crisis in waiting. It was caught short by a lack of attention to the region, as well as hampered by vestiges of the decades of US policy that treated Latin America like a personal domain.

As one State Department official says, the US still suffers from a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" reaction when acting on crises in Latin America. High- profile involvement can raise wails of protest from critics who say the "Yanqui" reflex to treat southern neighbors like unruly children is alive and well. On the other hand, a disengaged US can also find itself accused of something akin to parental neglect. That's where American officials see the US pegged today, as critics lambaste the Bush administration - which came into office touting Latin America as a top priority - for turning its back on the southern Americas.

"The US has not found its comfort level in how proactive it can be as the good neighbor," says Miguel Díaz, director of the South America Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There's still an awkwardness because of historical issues that leaves us not really sure-footed in engaging with the region."

The awkwardness and mixed signals result from a deep division within the administration over how to deal with the Venezuelan crisis, some experts say. "The Bush administration's approach to this crisis is disjointed, it's confusing, and the reason is unresolved differences between those who have favored letting things ride and those wanting something a little tougher in dealing with Mr. Chávez," says Jack Sweeney, a senior analyst in Virginia with long experience in Venezuela for Stratfor intelligence services.

Mr. Sweeney sees divisions between Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on the one hand, and lower-level political appointees like Otto Reich on the other. Mr. Reich is a State Department special envoy to Latin America.

The Powell-Rice group is still supporting a stand-back approach that largely entrusts crisis resolution to the country's extremely polarized political actors, Sweeney says, while the other group advocates a "more robust" defense of democratic principles by pressuring Chávez more.

Well into the third week of a national strike pitting a determined but inchoate political opposition against the pugnacious Chávez, Venezuela slides closer to a repeat of turmoil that last April left 18 dead in street protests.

This time, however, oil workers have joined the general strike and have practically turned off the spigot, in a country that derives 70 percent of its income from oil. World oil prices are already climbing over the possibility of war with Iraq, and now, as the Venezuelan pipeline runs dry, US gasoline prices threatening to spike upward.

This is putting pressure on the US to enter the fray, but it's still trying to repair damage that resulted from a White House call last week for early elections to defuse the crisis. That call was widely interpreted as support for the opposition, and had Chávez wryly noting that such elections would require him to violate Venezuela's Constitution. This week, the White House backed away from that stance and said it supports a referendum on Chávez's presidency - without recommending a date.

Under the Chávez-engineered Constitution, a binding referendum on Chávez's rule could be held next August. The middle- and upper-class opposition - backed by the near total shutdown of the oil industry - wants new elections much sooner. But Chávez knows that would doom his "revolution," which today enjoys solid support only among the lower levels of the military and the poor.

Venezuela's crisis has been fed by a confrontational president who, in his zeal to knock down a power structure dominated by a small elite, has undone the institutions at the base of the country's democracy. Thus, institutions that might normally be called on to resolve a national crisis have either been gutted or turned into partisan players.

That's why most experts believe an outside party - such as the US, working with other countries in the region - will be necessary to defuse the crisis.

"The US approach to Venezuela has been at best incoherent and at worst counterproductive. But given our place and importance in the hemisphere, we have to do better," says Robert Pastor of the Center for Democracy and Elections Management at American University in Washington. "We need to ... work collectively [with the Organization of American States] to head off a disaster."

"Disaster" could mean as much as civil war - which would be alongside the decades-old conflict in neighboring Colombia, where the US pours in millions of dollars annually to help fight a left-wing insurgency and the drug trade that supports them.

That outcome is far from inevitable in Venezuela, analysts note, but is more likely if a bitterly divided country is left to fight things out on its own.

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