- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

Fidel Castro was snubbed and U.S. motorists caught a break as governments across the hemisphere scrambled yesterday to assess the stunning fall of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the left-wing populist ousted under military pressure Thursday after weeks of social unrest.
The new manager of state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) declared that the ex-president's policy of cultivating ties with Cuba's strongman through subsidized energy trade had been revoked.
"We're not going to send a single barrel more of oil to Cuba," Edgar Paredes, head of sales and refining at the oil giant told cheering PDVSA workers.
Venezuela under Mr. Chavez had become Cuba's largest trading partner and leading diplomatic ally on the continent, shipping up to 53,000 barrels of cut-rate oil to Cuba each day.
Meanwhile, the price of crude oil staged its biggest drop in five months, falling 6.1 percent to $23.47 a barrel in New York after PDVSA workers moved to bring production and exports to full capacity.
Monopoly executive Horacio Medina estimated that operations will be back to normal within a week.
Since the South American nation supplies 13 percent of oil consumed by the United States, analysts predicted pump prices could fall as much as 10 cents in the next month.
Public reaction from many of Venezuela's neighbors was muted, despite the fact that Mr. Chavez had been repeatedly accused of cultivating ties to Marxist insurgency groups in countries such as Colombia and Peru.
Private relief at seeing Mr. Chavez go was tempered by concerns about instability in Caracas and unease about the process that removed a democratically elected leader.
"It's worrying, but we already know that in a deeply divided country, democracy falls apart," said Peru's president, Alejandro Toledo, speaking to reporters at a summit of 19 Central and South American countries in Costa Rica.
In a carefully worded statement, the Latin American leaders "condemned the interruption of constitutional order" in Venezuela, but stopped far short of calling for Mr. Chavez's restoration to power.
Both Peru and Mexico announced they would delay formal recognition of the new government in Caracas as it prepared for a promised round of elections.
"Coups do not help anyone," said Argentina President Eduardo Duhalde.
The Bush administration has made its unhappiness with Mr. Chavez increasingly clear in recent months, citing his confrontational governing style, his embrace of Cuba and his ties to fellow Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries members Libya and Iraq.
Mr. Chavez infuriated U.S. officials in October when he held up a photograph of dead Afghan children and said the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan must halt what he called "the slaughter of innocents."
He also slammed the U.S. role in the fight against narcotics traffickers in neighboring Colombia, amid continuing reports that Venezuela had established its own ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest leftist rebel group fighting the Colombian government.
FARC operatives were also reportedly finding sanctuary across the border in Venezuela.
The State Department and the White House yesterday pressed the new leaders of Venezuela to move quickly to restore democratic government, but they also made it clear Mr. Chavez was to blame for his own downfall and for the clashes that claimed the lives of at least 14 protesters.
Said State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker: "Though details are still unclear, undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday's crisis."
Officials said the administration may dispatch a delegation to Caracas to assess the situation.
Miguel Diaz, director of South American studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the quick decision to cut Cuban oil shipments by the new government of interim leader Pedro Carmona Estanga was made with Washington in mind.
"Obviously, there's a political signal being given that a change has taken place," said Mr. Diaz. "The past few years have really taken a toll on U.S.-Venezuelan relations and the new government clearly wants to repair some of the damage."
The cautious public statements about Mr. Chavez's fall by many Latin American leaders may have been a polite cover for some more private glee.
"I think there's a collective sigh of relief today by virtually everyone in the region, in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and even El Salvador," said Stephen Johnson, a Latin American specialist at the Heritage Foundation. "Chavez was increasingly seen as a gadfly, and not just by the other leaders, but by the people as well."
Said Mr. Diaz, "I don't think you'll see too many tears being shed for Chavez, either in Washington [or] in his own neighborhood."
The sharpest condemnation of Mr. Chavez's downfall came from Havana.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque accused Venezuela's military of staging a "coup d'etat," adding: "I hope pressure from the international community and the region's governments prevent the coupsters usurping power in Venezuela from consolidating their hold."
Rep. Cass Ballenger, the North Carolina Republican who chairs the House International Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, met with Mr. Chavez during a Latin American tour in December.
He said in an interview he found the Venezuelan personally charming, but without any "sense of business" or management skills.
"Here's a guy who picks a fight with business, then picks a fight with labor, then with the Catholic Church and then with the military," Mr. Ballenger said. "It was clear then this was a house of cards that was going to collapse."
But he added there were still deep concerns about the government now being formed, saying there were few obvious leaders ready to replace Mr. Chavez.
"I think everyone is going to be walking on eggshells for the near future, waiting to see how Venezuela will go," he said.
Chris Baker contributed to this report.

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