Pubdate: Thu, 28 Dec 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Christopher Marquis


WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 - After two years in which the United States has 
carefully avoided a feud with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the 
administration of George W. Bush will probably take a tougher stand against 
the populist leader, Republican officials and foreign policy analysts say.

There is a growing belief in Republican circles that Mr. Chavez is 
undercutting American foreign policy by providing oil to Cuba, by opposing 
"Plan Colombia," which includes $1.3 billion in United States 
counternarcotics aid for South America, and by giving political support to 
guerrillas and anti-government forces in neighboring Andean nations.

There is also concern that Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a 
failed coup in 1992, is distorting the democratic free-market model 
advocated in Washington by consolidating institutions under his control and 
setting himself up as an elected dictator.

While there is no bipartisan consensus on whether Mr. Chavez is merely a 
nuisance or a real threat to United States interests in Latin America, 
Republican advisers to the Bush team say the friction is increasingly hard 
to overlook.

"The Venezuela issue is likely to be troubling, or a hot spot in the first 
three to six months" as anti-drug battalions trained by the United States 
begin operations in Colombia, said Georges A. Fauriol, director of the 
Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a 
foreign policy research center with close ties to Republicans.

But the analysts also preach caution. The stakes are high, they note, as 
Venezuela holds the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East and is 
America's fourth largest supplier. An openly hostile stance toward Mr. 
Chavez could do more harm than good.

"It's been a conscious policy of trying to engage with him on a positive 
basis wherever possible without rising to the rhetorical bait when he pokes 
us in the eye," said Bernard Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state 
for Latin America in the previous Bush administration. "His actions are 
getting harder and harder to ignore. I'm not sure the incoming 
administration is going to be as tolerant."

Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Toro Hardy, said that Mr. Chavez had 
legitimate concerns over Plan Colombia, including a fear that it will bring 
refugees, renewed violence and an arms race to Venezuela.

"He is a president who believes a nation, no matter its size, has the right 
to act in a sovereign fashion," he said. "But it in no way is a hostile 

Some Clinton administration officials agree. One longtime diplomat who 
served in Venezuela said Mr. Chavez had not jeopardized the United States 
priorities of fighting drugs, protecting democracy and safeguarding the oil 
supply. "All of our interests are pretty well taken care of," the diplomat 
said. However troublesome Mr. Chavez's moves to purge the judiciary and 
neutralize political parties and labor unions, the envoy added, "what 
Chavez did he did on the basis of clean elections. So far he is functioning 
within the democratic structure."

Republican Party foreign policy experts say they would look to Mexico to 
help reduce America's dependence on Venezuelan oil, which currently 
accounts for 13 percent of United States imports. Mr. Chavez has helped in 
that regard, slashing his nation's oil production to drive up prices; in 
the process, Venezuela slipped behind Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico as a 
United States supplier.

While governor of Texas, Mr. Bush built a comfortable relationship with 
Mexico's conservative new president, Vicente Fox, and he is expected to 
make United States-Mexican relations a cornerstone of his Latin policy.

"We need to cultivate the Mexicans on this," said a Republican foreign 
policy aide who served Presidents Reagan and Bush. "They could conceivably 
be a much more reliable supplier."

The next administration is also expected to solidify contacts within the 
Venezuelan military, which is increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Chavez, 
the Republican experts say. Unlike Mr. Chavez, many Venezuelan officers 
studied and trained in the United States and do not share his suspicions, 
they said.

Rather than clash directly with Mr. Chavez, the Republicans say, they would 
favor a quiet effort to prod other Latin American nations to spurn Mr. 
Chavez and ignore his appeals to regional solidarity. Most of Venezuela's 
Andean neighbors have already voiced distress over what they say is 
meddling by Mr. Chavez in their internal affairs, but the most influential 
nation, Brazil, has taken a more benign view.

"Bush has an opportunity with Venezuela to say, I'm going to deal with the 
hemisphere respectfully, and to a certain extent, I'm got to let the 
hemisphere be the judge of Chavez's behavior," said Dan Fisk, a senior 
fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group. "What 
Chavez wants is to provoke some sort of overreaction from Washington."

The incoming administration will also try to blunt regional skepticism 
toward Plan Colombia by providing a significant amount of development aid 
to Venezuela's neighbors, officials and analysts said.

Since Mr. Chavez took office in February of last year, he has seemed 
determined to display his independence from the United States, a posture 
that plays well with his nationalistic, mostly poor supporters. He spurned 
United States flood aid when American troops came to deliver it. He became 
the first head of state to break the international isolation of Saddam 
Hussein, the Iraqi leader, when he visited Iraq in August.

He lavished admiration on Fidel Castro, and helped him combat the American 
trade ban by sending him oil in return for medical service for Venezuelans. 
He has fostered the greatest increase in tensions with Colombia in two 
decades, has reached out to Colombian rebels and has predicted that 
American military aid will lead to a regional conflagration. His 
expressions of sympathy for anti-government forces in Bolivia and Ecuador 
have drawn howls of protest from those countries.

He has barred American counter-narcotics pilots from flying in Venezuelan 
airspace, and he has led the charge in OPEC to force up prices by scaling 
back production. During the uncertain days after the United States 
presidential election, Mr. Chavez could not resist a jab at his northern 
neighbor. "We're willing to help out if necessary," he said.

Such positions play well at home, and some analysts say it is occasionally 
difficult to determine whether Mr. Chavez's appeals to class resentment and 
regional leadership are merely bluster.

Toro Hardy, Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, argues that Mr. Chavez 
has been a reliable economic partner of the United States and has taken 
major steps toward market reform and privatization that have benefited 
American investors.

"When two countries have such close economic ties you can't speak of 
conflicting relations," Mr. Hardy said in an interview.

He denied that Venezuela provides any material support to rebels in the 
Andean region, and he attributed the concern over Mr. Chavez to 
"misperceptions." He said Mr. Chavez's five trips to the United States 
prove he is not anti-American.
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