Sunday, March 09, 2003

Bush Administration Stumbles Again in Venezuela

Special to
Thursday, December 19, 2002; 4:01 PM

WASHINGTON--With so many in the Bush administration able to speak Spanish, the
phrase "No aprende ni a palos"should have a familiar ring. If not, one need only
examine the White House's recent actions regarding Venezuela to understand that
the words refer to someone who never learns--just doesn't seem to get it--even
when hit upside the head with a stick.

How else to explain why for the second time in eight months, the administration
recklessly threw its weight behind the political opposition in that very
volatile country at a moment when choosing sides threatened to trigger an
explosive reaction.

By forcefully calling on Friday for early--and therefore unconstitutional-presidential elections, the administration jeopardized the delicate balance developing in Caracas after weeks of negotiations between President Hugo Chavez's government and its democratic opponents. Facilitated by Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, the talks have been the best hope for a peaceful solution to a long-simmering crisis.

Within 72 hours the Bush administration modified its stance, calling for a
referendum, something the constitution does allow. By then, however, Washington
had cast again doubt on its commitment to uncensored democracy in the region.
The United States behaved similarly and with apparent impunity in April, when it
prematurely recognized a short-lived government that ousted Chavez in a coup
d'etat. This reprise was unnecesary and not helpful.

Latin America would be better off if Washington could learn from its mistakes.
The region needs the leader of the free world to be more patient and less
willing to publicly air his likes and dislikes. It needs a White House that
better understands that in situations like the one in Venezuela, its actions--or
lack thereof--send signals to either or both sides in the dispute.

Now, more than ever, such patience with evolving democracies is essential. Newly
elected leaders in countries like Brazil or Ecuador need assurances that the
United States will stand up for democracy regardless of ideological differences.
That clearly has not been the case with Venezuela, where a striking lack of
diplomatic finesse at a critical moment could have darkened the storm clouds
still gathering over the presidential palace at Miraflores.

The call for early elections took many by surprise, including some at the State
Department, where one official said the White House had gotten a "little in
front of the curve." That was understandable, however, the official said, a case
of human error. Nothing more.

Another State Department official said the action was deliberate, a conscious
"refinement" of the U.S. position that was warranted by a "heightened state of
crisis" in Venezuela that Chavez persistently dismisses as "normal." Washington,
according to this line of thought, was simply expressing what so many others in
the hemisphere were thinking but were reluctant to say. Perhaps.

The White House statement, issued Friday and shamelessly revised on Monday, came
just hours before representatives of the 34 OAS member states met to consider
Chavez's request for full support. That coincidence prompted some diplomats here
to conclude that Washington was throwing its weight around, a scare tactic
designed to pre-emptively quash pro-Chavez sentiments. If such was the intent,
it is unclear how effective the strategy was.

Late Monday night, after nearly 30 hours of debate, the OAS issued a resolution
backing Chavez only by inference. It called for supporting democracy in
Venezuela, "whose government is headed by ... Chavez." With that oblique
endorsement of Chavez as the coincidental status quo, the organization seemed to
be hoping that neither side in Venezuela would interpret the resolution as a
victory and use it against the other. Indeed, the risks were so high that for
some time during the deliberations, some advocated that the organization say
nothing rather than something it later would regret.

At the end of the debate, Washington advised Venezuela to look to others in the
region for guidance. The exact reference was unmentioned but obvious: Argentina.
Faced earlier this year with the prospect of an increasingly violent situation
getting completely out of hand, Argentinian President Eduardo Duhalde turned to
an electoral solution. That move, perfectly legal under Argentina's constitution, helped reduce tension in that financially, politically and socially strapped nation, many here this week said.

There is a key difference in these two cases. Duhalde's call in Argentina came
from someone who had no direct stake in the election outcome, since he is not a
candidate. The U.S. call echoed the position of Chavez's opponents, whose open
agenda is to oust him. The Bush administration was harshly criticized for a
nearly identical mistake eight months ago. Sometimes even the mighty fail to
learn from the stick.

(c) 2002 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive