During a recent South American tour, a
U.S. Senate delegation showed how futile it is to patronize
despots. Members struggled to invent common bonds with Venezuela's
authoritarian leader, and then promised what they couldn't
In Caracas on January 10, Senators
Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Lincoln Chafee
(R-RI) called on President Hugo Chávez, offering to repair
testy relations with Washington if he would assure oil exports to
the United States and cooperate with U.S. counternarcotics efforts
Dodd, the ranking Senator who once
advocated friendly ties with Nicaragua's Sandinista
comandantes, told Chávez, "Both countries need each
other." At a news conference, he added, "Today is a new year, a new
page, and we are here to find out if we can begin a new
Little in Common
It was a nice try, but Venezuela's
President has made it abundantly clear that he opposes what the
United States stands for-democracy and free markets. He portrays
capitalism as savage and has called President Bush a Nazi.
Supported by his country's abundant petroleum resources, he has no
reason to favor America with oil, help Colombia fight drugs and
terrorist guerrillas, or be a nice neighbor.
In fact, recent events prove he is
consolidating an authoritarian revolution. Two days before the
delegation arrived, Venezuelan soldiers invaded a large cattle
ranch to allow a government survey to facilitate an expropriation.
Such "land reform" opens a new phase in the state's assault on
private property and free enterprise.
A week before, Colombian rebel leader
Rodrigo Granda turned up in Venezuela as a naturalized citizen.
Venezuelan soldiers made headlines and angered their president by
capturing and delivering Granda to Colombian authorities in order
to collect a bounty. Chávez calls Colombia's
narco-guerrillas comrades and yet denies that he aids or harbors
In December, government prosecutors
charged political activist Maria Corina Machado with treason for
providing technical advice for a petition drive that led to an
August 15 referendum on Chávez's rule. Meanwhile,
Chávez enacted a law permitting the state to close private
media for vaguely defined offenses against public order. The
government also has new authority to jail street protesters now
reportedly with the help of Cuban police who can search Venezuelan
homes and help with arrests. .
Alarming neighbors, Chávez is
buying arms from Russia, claiming he must defend the Panama Canal
and Amazon River Basin, neither of which is in Venezuela. A year
ago, he cut off oil shipments to the Dominican Republic because a
former Venezuelan president and political rival lived there.
Meanwhile, he supplies friends-like Fidel Castro in Cuba-with
petroleum at below-market prices and on generous credit
Now Venezuela's state oil company is
pushing Panama to modify a pipeline to allow it to pump crude to
tankers anchored in the Pacific Ocean and bound for China-to cut
dependence on U.S. markets. Sen. Nelson, the delegation's realist
and a seasoned Latin America hand, suggested the United States
would be better off reducing its dependence on foreign
oil-including Venezuelan crude.
Despite continuous verbal assaults from
the Chávez regime since it took power in 1998, U.S.
administrations have assiduously avoided fights. Prior to the April
2002 uprising that briefly took Chávez from power, U.S.
Ambassador Donna Hrinak gave him intelligence on ouster plots in
accordance with U.S. policy. The President seemed indifferent,
perhaps because he planned to use the situation to neutralize
The same generals who kept
Chávez out of sight for two days recruited a junta of
befuddled businessmen and enticed prominent civic leaders to sign a
document supporting their "interim" government. Not surprisingly,
those who followed along now face criminal charges.
Stung by Senator Dodd's accusation that
it did nothing to stop the "coup," the Bush Administration left it
to the Organization of American States and former President Jimmy
Carter to broker peace and resolve a crisis of confidence in
Chávez's rule. Despite difficult negotiations with
uncooperative officials, the President's loyalists finally
permitted a referendum. But behind Carter's back, they padded voter
rolls, intimidated opponents, and then celebrated victory as
beleaguered monitors reported only what little they were allowed to
Afterward, Secretary of State Colin
Powell and U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield suggested putting
aside differences to seek areas of cooperation with
Chávez-to no avail.
Something Ventured, Nothing
Despite claims that the two countries
need each other, Venezuela's bully President doesn't think so. And
he may be right. Petroleum is fungible, and so shipments diverted
to Asia may be replenished by another supplier. And even if
Chávez continues helping Colombia's terrorist rebels, he
risks a confrontation that could ignite an armed conflict at home.
Finally, the United States has already offered better relations.
Now it's up to Chávez.
The real challenge is for politicians
like Sen. Dodd to see Chávez as an elected dictator. The
budding tyrant must have choked back laughter when Dodd asked him
to accept U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. Cuba has reportedly sent
more than 25,000 doctors, teachers, and intelligence operatives to
help corral Venezuela's once free society. Tellingly, hundreds have
already tried to escape.
Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn
and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The