While a majority of Americans, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, now believe the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, the Bush administration is chalking up a lesser-known but increasingly obvious foreign policy failure closer to home. The administration’s efforts to isolate Venezuela as “undemocratic” have been backfiring all year, to the point where every move seems to isolate our own government in the hemisphere.
For anyone who has been to Venezuela, it’s easy to see why no one wants to take Washington’s side in this grievance. A few weeks ago I passed by a 22-story government building in downtown Caracas, and saw about 200 students blocking the exits in a protest against the government.
Trapped inside past quitting time were thousands of employees including several Cabinet-level ministers. A few police stood by calmly, not interfering. This went on for hours. There were no injuries or arrests.
I thought of what would happen if people tried this in Washington. There would be tear gas, pepper spray, heads cracked, and mass arrests. Some would get felony charges. The protest would be over in 10 minutes. The next day I turned on the TV and on the biggest channels there were commentators and experts trashing the government, in ways that do not happen in the United States or indeed most countries in the world.
I picked up the two biggest newspapers at a newsstand – very slanted against the government, again like nothing in the United States. It’s pretty hard to make a case that Venezuela is less democratic than other Latin American countries, and no respectable human rights organization has tried to do so.
The Venezuelan economy is booming, millions of poor people have access to health care and subsidized food for the first time, and President Chavez’s approval ratings have soared to more than 70 percent – according to opposition pollsters.
Still, the Bush administration perseveres on its lonely road. The most recent embarrassment came at the Organization of American States meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this month, when the United States failed to convince other countries that the OAS should monitor and evaluate “democracy” within member countries. It was widely seen as an attempt to use the OAS against Venezuela, to which other countries responded by saying, “Please take your fight elsewhere.”
Just weeks before that, the U.S.-backed candidate for OAS president lost to Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza, backed by Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. It was the first time in 60 years that the United States failed to get its candidate as head of the regional body. The Bush team pressured Insulza to make a statement about “elected governments that do not govern democratically,” which was seen as a swipe against Venezuela. But this turned out to be more of an embarrassment to Insulza than anything else.
After supporting a failed military coup in 2002, giving millions of dollars to the opposition (including some involved in the coup), funding a presidential recall effort that failed miserably last year – one would think that the Bush team would know when to give up. But they don’t. And now an increasing number of U.S. members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, are beginning to question the wisdom of continually harassing our second-largest trading partner in South America and third-largest oil supplier.
It started when Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice faced hostile questions about her Venezuela policy from five senators in January during her confirmation hearings. Now the criticism is spilling over into our House of Representatives. Eventually our government will have to learn to respect the results of democratic elections in Venezuela – which is all that the Venezuelans are asking from us.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank.