Chavez Unfairly Viewed Through Cold War Lens

Editor’s Note: The appointment of a Cold Warrior as U.S. point man on Latin America could make relations with Venezuela worse before it gets better. Donal Brown is a reporter for New America Media.

John Negroponte’s confirmation last Feb. 12 as deputy secretary of state could lead to a worsening of already fragile relations between the United States and Venezuela.

Negroponte, who is leaving his current post as director of national intelligence to oversee policy toward Iraq, China and the Sudan, is also expected to be the The Bush administration1s point man on Central and South America.

A career diplomat and ardent anti-Communist, Negroponte brings a Cold-War mentality to the office. As ambassador to Honduras (1981-1985) he turned a blind eye on Honduran government death squads and other human rights abuses against leftist uprisings of the rural poor, alleged the Center for Media & Democracy. He was also said to be responsible for carrying out the Reagan administration1s covert strategy against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and deceiving Congress about the U.S. role in financing the Contras.

In his Senate confirmation hearings, Negroponte accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of “trying to export his kind of radical populism, and I think that his behavior is threatening to democracies in the region.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a similar accusation in Congress last year, saying Chavez was leading “a Latin brand of populism that has taken countries down the drain.”

Other critics warn of the alliance between Iran and Venezuela, that the two together control a significant share of the world’s oil and can influence its supply and price. In extreme circumstances they could withdraw their oil from the market and cause a sharp escalation in prices, they caution.

Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, however, prefers ignoring what he calls Chavez’s bluster. Birns and others prefer avoiding confrontation which would only antagonize Latin American countries and isolate the U.S. They believe the U.S. should instead engage Venezuela on issues of mutual interest energy, drugs, poverty and health.

With Negroponte at the point, the Bush administration may be more inclined than ever to see Chavez as a “populist demagogue.” The administration has denounced Chavez’s increased power after the last election and his revocation of the license of an opposition radio station in December.

Birns acknowledges that Chavez lacks self-discipline and frequently defeats himself with ill-considered statements, but he still finds much of the official criticism of Chavez unfair and distorted.

“Chavez has followed a constitutional course in taking actions based on legal procedures,” says Birns.

Chavez, he says, is a socialist but one who employs a democratic political system. He was elected as president twice in 1998 by a 56 to 40 percent margin and in 2002 by 60 to 38 percent. After the 2002 election, impatient with the slowly revolving wheels of democracy, Chavez sought to rule by presidential decree. Since the opposition declined to put up candidates in the last election — most would have lost anyway – Chavez’s party controls the legislature. Still, if 10 percent of the voters object to any law, whether or not enacted by Chavez, they can initiate a referendum to repeal it.

When Chavez revoked the license of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), he was roundly criticized in Venezuela and abroad. Yet even with RCTV gone, well over 90 percent of the media is controlled by wealthy elites opposed to him. RCTV openly supported the abortive coup of 2002, and when the coup failed, it ran cartoons 24 hours a day rather than news of the restoration of Chavez as the democratically elected leader.

Dan Hellinger, a Venezuelan scholar from Webster University, says that while Chavez has concentrated a great deal of power in his hands, he has had some success at reducing poverty. Chavez set up free medical clinics staffed by Cuban doctors in poor neighborhoods and also established government-subsidized grocery stores.

Birns thinks that relations with Venezuela may heat up now that Negroponte is in charge and can undercut current Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. for the western hemisphere, whom Birns says has maintained an even keel with Venezuela since 2005.

But according to Hellinger, although Negroponte brings a lot a negative baggage to his new position, he is a pragmatist. “The only good news,” says Hellinger, “is that Negroponte is more a product of the Bush I administration, more of a real-politics type and less of an idealogue.”

Hellinger also says that the neocons who hate Chavez the most are now weak because of their Iraq failures and unable to goad the Bush administration to strike against Chavez.

The U.S. and Venezuela will be locked in a dance of unknown nature for some time to come. Venezuela currently supplies the U.S. with over 15 percent of its oil, the fourth leading supplier after Saudi Arabia, Canada and Mexico. This is not expected to change even as Venezuela looks for alternative markets. As for Venezuela, it depends on its U.S. oil revenues to finance the poverty and health programs within its own borders and overseas.