Sunday, January 18, 2009

High on President-elect Obama's to-do list: dealing with Chávez

Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chávez presents a problem for the incoming Obama administration, but the level of seriousness remains uncertain.
Not least among the hemispheric challenges that President-elect Barack Obama will face following his inauguration Tuesday is what to do about Venezuela's anti-American President Hugo Chávez. For years now, U.S. relations with Venezuela have been tense, falling to their lowest level last September when Chávez expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy in solidarity with a similar measure adopted by the government of Bolivia.
And Saturday, Chávez accused Obama of meddling with a Feb. 15 referendum that
could allow him to run for reelection indefinitely. ''He's said I'm an obstacle
for progress in Latin America,'' Chávez, who in the past has expressed hope for
improved relations with the Obama administration, said in a speech to
supporters. ``Therefore it must be removed, this obstacle, right? ''

''Barack Obama seems to be making new trouble,'' the leftist populist said, adding that Obama's criticisms of his government have come on orders from the U.S. military. ''If he doesn't obey the orders of the empire, they'll kill him,'' he said.

During the electoral campaign, Obama referred to Chávez as a ''demagogue'' and Monday referred to repeated allegations of links between Venezuela and ''terrorist groups'' such as the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. And at her congressional confirmation hearing for secretary of state last week, Hillary Clinton acknowledged the strained relationship between Washington and Caracas.

''We have problems in our own hemisphere with some of the providers of energy, like Hugo Chávez,'' Clinton said. ``We have challenge in Latin America, and our challenges are lack of engagement in a way that makes a difference. We need to care less about what Chávez says and more about what we do at the end of the day.''

Chávez has responded quickly and aggressively to the criticism. ''Obama is repeating the same thing as Bush. It's a pity,'' Chávez said during a televised speech this week.

On Thursday, the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela, Charge d'Affaires John Caulfield, said the Obama administration would seek increased cooperation and ''renewed dialogue'' with the Chávez government. Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said Obama's policy toward Venezuela likely will not differ much from that of the Bush administration. ''He is going to try to maintain the best possible relationship with Venezuela, given the circumstances and conditions and the rhetoric of President Chávez and his insistence that the United States is at the heart and is the source of all of the problems of Latin America and Venezuela,'' DeShazo said. But Michael Shifter, vice president of the Washington-based research center Inter-American Dialogue, said the challenges Obama will face in the relationship with Venezuela will focus more on ''the alliances that Chávez has with other governments that are not exactly friends of the United States,'' such as Iran, Russia and China. ''I think the development of the alliances that Chávez has with those governments will be a topic of great interest and concern,'' Shifter said. ``That is where I think Obama's primary focus will be centered with regards to Venezuela.''

The Pentagon, in a recently declassified report of future challenges faced by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, pointed to both Venezuela and Cuba as major potential challenges in the hemisphere. ''Unless the current regime changes course, [Venezuela] could use its oil resources to subvert its neighbors for a long period, and at the same time promote anti-American activities on a global scale with its allies in Iran, Russia and China, creating in effect opportunities for establishing an anti-American coalition in the region,'' the report noted.

And a State Department report from mid-2008 noted the ''association'' of Venezuela with ''terrorist states'' as one of the three priority matters for American diplomacy on a global scale, along with Iranian support of the insurgency in Iraq and the resurgence of al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan. The report drew special attention to the establishment last year of regular flights between Tehran and Caracas, in which passengers are not adequately screened. It also warned that Venezuelan passports and other official identification documents can be easily obtained, making Venezuela a potentially attractive way station for terrorists.

Political analyst Anibal Romero of the Metropolitan University of Caracas said although Venezuela doesn't currently represent a ''vital threat'' to the United states, Washington should be wary. ''I wouldn't exaggerate the threat of Chávez,'' he said, ``but I also wouldn't underestimate it.''

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