Pubdate: Thu, 28 Dec 2000
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Jose Mercury News
Contact:  750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190
Fax: (408) 271-3792
Author: Christopher Marquis, New York Times


Chavez May Threaten U.S. Interests In S. America, They Say

WASHINGTON -- 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 Chavez is
undercutting U.S. foreign policy by providing oil to Cuba, by opposing
"Plan Colombia," which includes $1.3 billion in U.S.
counternarcotics aid for South America, and by giving political
support to guerrillas and anti-government forces in neighboring Andean

There is also concern that Chavez, 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 Chavez is merely a
nuisance or a real threat to U.S interests in Latin America,
Republican advisers to the Bush team say the friction is increasingly
hard to overlook.

Venezuelan Threat

"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 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 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," Aronson said of Chavez.

Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Toro Hardy, said 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 posture."

Some Clinton administration officials agree. One longtime diplomat who
served in Venezuela said Chavez had not jeopardized the U.S.
priorities of fighting drugs, protecting democracy and safeguarding
the oil supply. "All of our interests are pretty well taken care
of," the diplomat said.

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 U.S. imports. 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 U.S. supplier.

"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
Chavez, the Republican experts say. Unlike Chavez, many Venezuelan
officers studied and trained in the United States and do not share his
suspicions, they said.

Rather than clash directly with Chavez, the Republicans say, they
would favor a quiet effort to prod other Latin American nations to
spurn 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 Chavez in their internal affairs, but the most
influential nation, Brazil, has taken a more benign view.

Independence Movement

Since Chavez took office in February of last year, he has seemed
determined to display his independence from the United States, which
plays well with his nationalistic, mostly poor supporters. He spurned
U.S. flood aid when American troops came to deliver it; he became the
first head of state to break the international isolation of Saddam
Hussein when he visited Iraq in August; and he lavished admiration on
Fidel Castro, and helped him combat the U.S. trade ban by sending
him oil in return for medical service for Venezuelans.

Hardy, the ambassador, argues that Venezuela remains a partner of the
United States.

"When two countries have such close economic ties you can't speak of
conflicting relations," 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 Chavez to
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake