COMMENTARY FROM COHA
Bush Administration’s Limp Disavowal of Robertson’s Incalculably Outrageous Words on Venezuela and Chávez is an Insult, not a Constructive Course of Action
Pat Robertson, an avid Bush supporter and founder of the politically influential right-wing religious group, the Christian Coalition, recently called on the U.S. government to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. On Monday’s broadcast of his television show, The 700 Club, Robertson described Chávez’s Venezuela as a “launching pad for Communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent” and all but called for a fatwa, urging the Bush administration to exercise its ability to covertly “take him out.” Robertson has since broadcast a disingenuous retraction of his unabashed violation of the Sixth Commandment, claiming that “take him out” did not imply “assassinate,” even though he also stated on the program that “If [Chávez] thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it.” Venezuela’s vice president responded on Tuesday, calling Robertson’s pot of vitriol a “terrorist” statement that demands investigation. The White House however, has not as of yet firmly denounced the inflammatory political commentary. While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assured that “our department doesn’t do that type of thing,” he refused to offer even mild censure of Robertson’s policy advice in his dismissive observation that, “He’s a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time.” State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack’s comments were so understated that they bordered on tacit support – the official merely labeled Robertson’s blatant call to illegal violence as “inappropriate,” betraying the fact that Washington’s hostility to Chávez is organic and not epidermal. Given that Washington can no longer ignore the influential role Chávez plays in the hemisphere, the Bush administration needs an entirely new approach to its relations with Venezuela that emphasizes Chávez as an asset and not a liability, starting with a strong denouncement of Robertson’s outlandish statements. The White House, not some State Department functionary, must clearly condemn his extremist evangelist rhetoric and call for high level negotiations with Caracas in the spirit of those now being carried on with Pyongyang.
The Venezuelan president has engaged in a lengthy stand off with the U.S. administration. Chávez repeatedly challenges U.S. regional dominance in a kamikaze-like fashion that would invite his political death if it were not such a welcome change from the typically neutral attitudes of many Latin American leaders. Most recently, he has charged U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials stationed in his country with committing espionage and lambasted Washington for blocking the extradition to Venezuela of Cuban “terrorist” Luis Posada Carriles and funding opposition groups to his government. The Bush administration maintains that these charges are unwarranted, but distressingly, many of Chávez’s claims are rooted in truth and Latin Americans are taking note. Already blaming much of their countries’ economic stagnation on failed U.S.-advocated neo-liberal “reforms,” Latin Americans remain deeply resentful of the U.S. and embrace Chávez. Most of the region’s citizens see him not as a noisy radical, but as the people’s tribune.
Chávez is now the legitimate standard-bearer for his own brand of socialism that is spreading throughout Latin America and infuriating the U.S. The Bush Administration, underestimating the deep-seated roots of Chávez’s popularity and influence, has attempted to isolate him and his populist ideology by presenting the countries of the region with a stark choice: Venezuela or the U.S. This strategy has convinced some intimidated nations to fall in line with the northern behemoth. For example, in the late July election of the new president of the Inter-American Development Bank, most of the Caribbean nations ultimately supported the U.S.-backed candidate, Luis Moreno, over the Venezuelan candidate, Jose Alejandro Rojas, even though Venezuela signed a significant trade treaty with most of the nations of the region that supplied them with oil at a subsidized rate. However, Chávez is holding his ground in much of Latin America, where nations such as Brazil and Uruguay show no signs of abandoning him, in large part because his socialist rhetoric enjoys widespread grassroots support. The Bush administration’s attempts to ostracize Chávez and override his rising hemispheric influence are failing; Chávez’s political vision is rapidly becoming Latin America’s guiding manifesto.
Initially, Chávez brought Venezuela to the forefront of Latin America’s attention by capitalizing on skyrocketing crude oil prices and signing historic development accords with China and most of the CARICOM countries. Chávez has furthermore cultivated a “Robin Hood” image throughout the region by championing his country’s poor, often at the expense of Venezuela’s elites, and fiercely, almost belligerently, maintained his independence from U.S. influence. This has established Venezuela as one of the bellwethers of Latin America’s new politics and economics.
From the beginning of his tenure, Chávez pledged to ignite a “Bolivarian Revolution” across the hemisphere and to distribute Venezuela’s oil wealth to the lower end of the region’s social spectrum. More than any other prominent Latin American leader, he has seen to it that his campaign pledges become policies. As evidenced by his over seventy percent current popular approval rating, the public is appreciative. Chávez hired 17,000 Cuban doctors as part of his social “missions” programs, providing over sixty percent of the population with free medical assistance in a country where previously, doctors only rarely ventured into poor neighborhoods. He is implementing a highly anticipated “endogenous development” plan that proposes using state oil revenue to create small business cooperatives, stimulate job creation and foster social development. PDVSA, the state-run oil company, spent more than $3.7 billion on domestic and agricultural programs last year. These reforms may have been criticized by the IMF for being overly expensive, but they have won Chávez a loyal following among Latin America’s disenfranchised and poor. Among rural peasants and the urban poor, social inequality is a fighting issue because, more than in any other region in the world, Latin America suffers from severe income disparity. Just two months ago, protestors overthrew former Bolivian President Carlos Mesa, railing against what they considered to be an inequitable distribution of Bolivia’s natural gas resources.
Chávez has accurately perceived and responded to Latin America’s discontent, providing the region with a bold alternative to the stale and clumsy U.S. impositions distilled to their antagonistic essence by Robertson’s contemptible petition. The U.S. administration would be wise to acknowledge the critically explosive nature of his heedless language; at stake is an even further isolation of the U.S. from Latin American affairs over the next decade. By continuing to brazenly attack the region’s socialist trend by treating Chávez as a pariah, the Bush administration is betraying the development hopes of a continent. Washington must give up the illusion that Chávez’ elimination would destroy his visions of autonomy, full sovereignty and Latin American integration, which have struck deep chords in his country and in the rest of Latin America. There could be no better time for the White House to launch a forceful retraction of its unsupported claims that Chávez is trying to destabilize the hemisphere.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Anita Joseph. Additional Research provided by COHA Research Associate Kathryn Tarker.
August 24, 2005
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