The Chávez Victory: A Blow to the Bush
By JUAN FORERO
Published: August 20, 2004
CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 19 - When President Hugo Chávez was ousted in a
coup two years ago, the Bush administration celebrated, calling the
ouster his own doing. The rest of Latin America was left fuming by the
overthrow and expressed strong support for Mr. Chávez as he was almost
immediately swept back into power in a popular uprising.
On Sunday, when Mr. Chávez triumphed over his adversaries in a
referendum on whether he should be recalled from office, countries from
Brazil to Argentina, Colombia to Spain heartily congratulated him. The
United States remained silent for more than a day, until a State
Department spokesman, Adam Ereli, offered tepid backing for the
The resounding victory was a blow to the Bush administration, which has
struggled with how to deal with Mr. Chávez, a leftist firebrand who
presides over the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and has opposed
Washington on every major initiative in Latin America. "There's no doubt
in my mind that at least in the White House - I don't know about the
State Department - there was a deep desire to see Chávez lose," said
former President Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center monitored the
election and who has briefed American officials on his efforts to broker
a peace between the government and its opponents.
Now, the United States has the challenge of constructing, from the
ground up, a new relationship with Mr. Chávez, who has done everything
imaginable to antagonize what he calls "the colossus to the north."
He has used an expletive to describe President Bush, threatened to hold
back oil sales if the United States invaded, and expanded Venezuela's
ties with Cuba. His campaign to win in the vote was built largely on
demonizing the United States.
"The Bush government will be defeated on Sunday," Mr. Chávez told
reporters three days before the recall vote. "The confrontation in
Venezuela is not really with this opposition. The opposition has a
master, whose name is George W. Bush."
American diplomats privately say they do not think that Mr. Chávez
believes his public statements, and that he manipulates latent
anti-Americanism for political gain. But American policy has been
largely counterproductive, only contributing to Mr. Chávez's
increasingly hostile barbs.
The United States long ago threw its lot in with an opposition movement
that is being discredited by foreign diplomats and many Venezuelans for
insisting that fraud took place when the preponderance of evidence
indicates it did not.
The United States has also provided money to groups like Súmate, which
violated elections norms early on Monday by distributing results of a
survey of voters leaving the polls that showed Mr. Chávez losing by a
wide margin. Mr. Chávez seized on this financing of anti-government
groups, channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy, to whip
his supporters into an anti-American frenzy.
"The United States is stuck in a time warp," said Riordan Roett,
director of Latin American studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of
Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "It is using
tools from the cold war, when money from the National Endowment for
Democracy was useful in funding anti-Communist movements."
The United States policy has largely been out of step with the rest of
the region. Washington has been unable to grasp the widespread reaction
against free market changes across Latin America, changes now being
rolled back by left-leaning leaders. In Venezuela, the United States has
operated on the presumption that Mr. Chávez's opponents had more
support, clearly underestimating that most Venezuelans would vote to
keep him in office.
"It's not that the U.S. is not paying attention, it's that their
calculation and strategy was wrong," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian
who is director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida
International University in Miami. "And it's been wrong because it's
been based on the false assumption that Chávez is not popular, on the
false assumption that he's a dictator."
After Mr. Chávez's resounding win, the Bush administration set itself
apart from the rest of the region, calling on the Venezuelan
government's electoral board to "allow a transparent audit," though
international monitors pronounced the election free and fair. On
Tuesday, Mr. Ereli, the State Department spokesman, dodged questions
from reporters about why the United States was not congratulating Mr.
A senior State Department official later said the United States'
reticence was intended to defuse tensions in Venezuela, not to dismiss
the results. He said Washington would issue a broader statement backing
the results after a final audit.
Not all of Washington's diplomatic moves here have failed. Ambassador
Charles Shapiro, newly arrived in Venezuela when Mr. Chavez was briefly
ousted in 2002, met frequently with him, patching up a relationship that
was battered after the White House expressed support for the interim
government that replaced him. The United States has also remained a
loyal buyer of Venezuelan crude oil. American giants like Exxon Mobil
and ChevronTexaco are producing oil and eyeing an expansion into largely
undeveloped natural gas fields that are open to foreign investment.
Those companies, and other major multinational businesses, provided
Venezuela with much-needed foreign earnings when the opposition called
nationwide strikes that battered the economy.
Those commercial links can strengthen the bond between Venezuela and the
United States, which is dependent on Venezuelan crude.
"The business sector, the large business sector, has understood better
the making of foreign policy than our government," Mr. Gamarra said.
"They looked at it from the perspective of what business opportunities
ought to be.'' Better relations with Mr. Chávez are possible. With his
presidency more secure since the vote, he has appeared open to
reconciliation. He has invited opposition leaders to lunch and has
expressed the wish for a new beginning with the United States.
"I would hope that President Chávez would now cool that anti-U.S.
rhetoric," Mr. Carter said. "There's no doubt that Chávez is a
charismatic figure, very fiery in his rhetoric, which I deplore. But
that's his personal characteristic, one of the avenues of his popularity
among Venezuelans. I think now, though, that he is not campaigning for
Steven R.Weisman contributed reporting from Washington for this article.