In recent weeks U.S. officials have made a series of remarkably unfriendly statements against the government of Venezuela, and its President Hugo Chavez. This breach of diplomatic norms can only serve to worsen relations between the two countries. It also provokes resentment in Latin America — in the same way that the Bush administration’s decision to disregard the United Nations and invade Iraq lowered our standing throughout the world.
“I think that some of the things that he [Chavez] has done at home politically and his policies on the economic side, has ruined what is a relatively wealthy country,” said Roger Noriega, the State department’s top diplomat for the Americas. This statement is ironic, since Venezuela’s current recession is mainly a result of the 64-day oil strike organized in December and January by opposition leaders seeking to overthrow the government. The State Department did not criticize this strike nor ask its friends in the opposition to desist from it, even though the Bush administration was preparing for war in the Middle East and had a strong interest in maintaining the flow of oil from Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest oil exporter.
U.S. officials have also made a number of statements indicating support for a referendum to recall President Chavez. This is in sharp contrast to the Bush administration’s position on the California referendum. When Republicans were gathering signatures to recall Governor Gray Davis, the Bush team remained studiously neutral.
In addition, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro violated diplomatic protocol by meeting with the country’s newly appointed electoral commission last week, even before the commission had met with the government. He offered “assistance” with the commission’s work, including their first task of deciding whether to accept the opposition’s recall petition. The petition was subsequently rejected unanimously by the commission, with even the opposition members abstaining.
Administration officials have also made statements, without offering any evidence, indicating that the Chavez government is supporting the guerillas in neighboring Colombia. And in July our government cut off U.S. Export-Import Bank credits to Venezuela.
Chavez has responded angrily to these statements and actions, telling our government “not to meddle” in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Noriega, in turn, accused Chavez of “unrelenting hostility” to the United States.
But how would the Bush Administration react if the president of France, for example, were to call for the impeachment of President Bush? Clearly it is Washington’s hostility to Venezuela that is causing the problem.
In fact, the Bush Administration openly supported the military coup against President Chavez in April 2002, reversing its stance after it became clear that the United States was diplomatically isolated.
Our government’s clear pro-opposition bias, as well as its lack of respect for democracy and national sovereignty in Venezuela, prevents it from playing any positive role in resolving political conflicts there. Nor is such intervention necessary.
Venezuela is a democracy, with complete freedom of the press, speech, assembly and association. In spite of Washington’s support for the military coup last year, the Chavez government has done its best to maintain friendly relations with the United States. It is our third largest trading partner in Latin America, and has always — except during the opposition’s oil strike — been a reliable energy supplier.
The Bush Administration’s policies are destabilizing Venezuela, politically and economically. This is wrong and dangerous, and has the potential to push the country towards civil war. There needs to be more pressure on the Bush team here in the United States to change course, before it creates another foreign policy disaster.
Mark Weisbrot is co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, DC (www.cepr.net).