Diplomatic alarm bells

February 01, 2005

VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT Hugo Chavez has been keeping very busy.

Emboldened by a failed referendum to recall him last August, he moved quickly to consolidate his power, stifle opposition and aggressively implement his increasingly leftist agenda.

His country's National Assembly just approved his hand-picked nominee for Central Bank president, who may likely permit Mr. Chavez to use international reserves for government spending -- a move opposed last year by the former bank president.

Last week, Mr. Chavez ended a 15-day diplomatic standoff with neighboring Colombia. He had cut off trade and commerce with that country after Colombian authorities arrested a Marxist guerrilla leader inside Venezuela without Mr. Chavez's knowledge or permission. Venezuela, an oil-rich country, is now widely considered a haven for regional, anti-government guerrillas.

Mr. Chavez has traveled Latin America criticizing the United States for supporting an unsuccessful coup against him in 2002. He has befriended Cuban dictator and U.S. nemesis, Fidel Castro, using oil profits to help him as well as to fund leftist opposition movements in the region. Mr. Chavez is also attempting to silence independent media and the judiciary and bring his country's economy under complete state control. He actively seeks new markets for his country's crude oil and has found willing takers in Russia, and in China, where runaway economic expansion is expected to drive an increased need for oil and trade with Latin America, thus competing with the U.S. He is courting Iran for help steering Venezuelan oil to China and away from the U.S.

Is the American government paying attention to all of this? Well, yes and no. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got an earful about Venezuela during her recent confirmation hearings. A few senators said U.S. policy there was ineffective because it relied more on criticizing and isolating Mr. Chavez than engaging him -- even after he indicated he wanted to improve relations with the U.S., and even as other Latin American leaders have moved leftward without a peep from the U.S.

Mr. Chavez's sincerity may be questionable, but keeping the lines of communication open would allow the U.S. to blunt his international mischief-making and, more important, keep U.S. oil supplies --13 percent from Venezuela -- from being more dependent on Mideast oil.

Mr. Chavez's growing influence will only hasten the diminishing of U.S. sway in the region if it continues to criticize him one day and ignore him the next.

U.S. policy in Latin America has been called apathetic, flawed and unvisionary. Such perceptions in Venezuela, and among its neighbors, put America's interests at risk.

Ms. Rice can change this by promptly turning her attention to Venezuela and that entire region when she returns from her diplomatic debut in Europe.

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