While politicians from across the political spectrum and editorial pages throughout the United States have been taking their shots at Venezuela's Hugo Chávez since his now infamous ''devil'' comment at the United Nations, no one is asking what made him so mad. Seats are getting crowded on the anti-Chávez bandwagon as retailer 7-Eleven announced it will drop Venezuelan-owned Citgo gasoline from its 2,100 service stations in the United States in protest and Florida lawmaker Rep. Adam Hasner has called for Citgo to be kicked off of the state's turnpike.
But perhaps we should try to understand why so many people around the globe are upset with the United States rather than simply dismiss Chávez as a despot or off his rocker. A quick glance at recent U.S. policy and posture toward Venezuela gives us some clues as to why people in Venezuela are getting set to reelect a president who calls the United States an empire.
U.S. role in 2002 coup
A good place to start is the short-lived 2002 coup in Venezuela. While the United States publicly denies any role in the coup, numerous published reports show that at the very least the United States had a cozy relationship with many of the opposition figures who allegedly planned the coup and immediately welcomed the overthrow of the democratically elected president.
The U.S. government, through the National Endowment for Democracy and ominously named Office of Transition Initiatives, has funneled millions of dollars to some of the most radical elements of domestic opposition in Venezuela, including political parties. Do you think President Bush and Karl Rove would be upset if the tables were turned and Chávez were funding a 527 group supporting the Democrats in the mid-term elections?
Few would praise Chávez for his diplomacy. But while Chávez's gaffe got nonstop play in the U.S. media, the same media pay little attention as Washington pulls no punches in its rhetoric against the Venezuelan president. In February Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld equated Chávez to Hitler. ''We've got Chávez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money,'' said Rumsfeld. ``He's a person who was elected legally, just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally.''
The 2006 National Security Strategy refers to Chávez as ''a demagogue awash in oil money'' who is undermining democracy and seeking to destabilize the region.
At the same time, the United States is stepping up its spying efforts in Venezuela. In August the director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, announced the creation of a new ''mission manager'' position for Venezuela and Cuba. According to the State Department, the only other countries in the world with ''mission managers'' based out of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are Iran and North Korea. Unconfirmed reports among security analysts suggest a recent 50 percent increase in CIA agents operating in Venezuela.
Let Venezuelans decide
Clearly the situation is not all rosy in Venezuela. Chávez recently admitted that the military was responsible for the killing of six miners in a clash in southern Venezuela. Yet he immediately called for a full investigation and punishment for those found responsible. ''This government isn't covering up, nor will it cover up any abuse,'' Chávez said.
At the same time, he has bolstered his popularity by using oil revenue -- long funneled into the pockets of bureaucrats -- to pay for arguably the most comprehensive social programs in South America.
Before making snap judgments based on Chávez's fiery rhetoric, we should ask the question: Why is Chávez so mad? The answer may be unsavory. Welcoming an unconstitutional coup, supporting radical domestic opposition and ramping up espionage would make any sane president upset.
Many in the United States and Venezuela have called on the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration to let the Venezuelan people decide their fate, without interference from Washington. When Venezuelans go to the polls on Dec. 3, they are likely to reelect Chávez. It is up to Venezuelans, and Venezuelans alone, to decide who leads their country, despite his strong words against Bush.
Jess Hunter-Bowman is Andean Region director for Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization that monitors U.S. policy in Latin America.