U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela Backfires

Increasingly obvious foreign policy failure

by Mark Weisbrot

Gulf News

June 22, 2005

WASHINGTON: While a majority of Americans, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, now believe the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, the Bush administration is chalking up a lesser-known but increasingly obvious foreign policy failure closer to home.

The administrationb's efforts to isolate Venezuela as being undemocraticb have been backfiring all year, to the point where every move seems to isolate the US government in the hemisphere.

For anyone who has been to Venezuela, it's easy to see why no one wants to take Washingtonb's side in this grievance. A few weeks ago I passed by a 22-story government building in downtown Caracas, and saw about 200 students blocking the exits in a protest against the government.

Trapped inside past quitting time were thousands of employees including several Cabinet-level ministers. A few police stood by calmly, not interfering. This went on for hours. There were no injuries or arrests.

I thought of what would happen if people tried this in Washington. There would be tear gas, pepper spray, heads cracked, and mass arrests. Some would get felony charges. The protest would be over in 10 minutes.

The next day I turned on the TV and on the biggest channels there were commentators and experts trashing the government, in ways that do not happen in the United States or indeed most countries in the world.

I picked up the two biggest newspapers at a newsstand, very slanted against the government, again like nothing in the United States.

It's pretty hard to make a case that Venezuela is less democratic than other Latin American countries, and no respectable human rights organisation has tried to do so.

The Venezuelan economy is booming, millions of poor people have access the health care and subsidised food for the first time, and President Chavez's approval ratings have soared to more than 70%, according to opposition pollsters.

Still the Bush administration perseveres on its lonely road. The most recent embarrassment came at the Organisation of American States meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, this month, when the United States failed to convince other countries that the OAS should monitor and evaluate democracy within member countries. It was widely seen as an attempt to use the OAS against Venezuela, to which other countries responded by saying, 'Please take your fight elsewhere.'

Just weeks before that, the US-backed candidate for OAS president lost to Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza, backed by Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil.

It was the first time in 60 years that the United States failed to get its candidate as head of the regional body. The Bush team pressured Insulza to make a statement about elected governments that do not govern democratically, which was seen as a swipe against Venezuela. But this turned out to be more of an embarrassment to Insulza than anything else.

After supporting a failed military coup in 2002, giving millions of dollars to the opposition (including some involved in the coup), funding a presidential recall effort that failed miserably last year one would think that the Bush team would know when to give up.

But they don't. And now an increasing number of US members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, are beginning to question the wisdom of continually harassing Americab's second-largest trading partner in South America and third largest oil supplier.

It started when Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice faced hostile questions about her Venezuela policy from five senators in January during her confirmation hearings. Now the criticism is spilling over into the House of Representatives. Eventually the US government will have to learn to respect the results of democratic elections in Venezuela which is all that the Venezuelans are asking from Americans. b KRT/Centre for Economic and Policy Research

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal Washington think-tank. Readers may write him at CEPR, 1621 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20009-1052.