- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

President Obama’s much-publicized encounter with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at last month’s Summit of the Americas meeting underscored the extent to which the bilateral relationship between the two countries has deteriorated over the past decade.

That the visuals of the leaders simply shaking hands generated the flood of commentary that it did — including criticism of Mr. Obama in conservative circles in the United States for merely exchanging words with his Venezuelan counterpart — speaks volumes.

Historically, Venezuela and the U.S. enjoyed good relations, based not only on Venezuela’s long-standing role as a major supplier of oil to the U.S. but also close ties in a wide variety of other areas. That relationship began to sour following the election of Mr. Chavez in 1998, at first slowly, then accelerating dramatically during the 2001-03 period, and finally settling into a state of sustained enmity.

Multiple factors drove the deterioration, but none more significant than the need for Mr. Chavez’s worldview to cast the U.S. in the role of villain. His concepts of the “Bolivarian revolution” and “twenty-first century socialism,” imply the clash of polar opposites, with himself leading the charge against the forces of “imperialism” much in the manner of Fidel Castro at the height of the Cold War.

Mr. Chavez’s presentation to Mr. Obama at the Summit of the classic anti-Yanqui book “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” neatly reflects this outlook.

Many observers erroneously predicted that Mr. Chavez would attempt to use the Summit in Trinidad and Tobago as a platform to criticize the U.S. as he had done at the previous Summit in Argentina in 2005, when he led street demonstrations against President Bush.

But Mr. Bush provided an easier foil for Mr. Chavez, in part due to the unpopularity in the hemisphere of U.S. policy in Iraq but also because Mr. Obama’s election was very well-received throughout the Americas. Mr. Obama presented a far less inviting target and Mr. Chavez was on better behavior.

The positive atmosphere in Trinidad and Tobago, however, does not dispel the reality of a bilateral relationship based on few points of cooperation and many of friction. The key element in the relationship is still trade.

Venezuela is the fourth-largest source of foreign oil imported by the U.S. — about 1.1 million barrels a day, approximately 9 percent of total imports. This is a mutually beneficial trade arrangement, although politically inconvenient for Mr. Chavez because a large percentage of his government’s revenue is derived from it. Substituting another market for the U.S. would be difficult and economically costly.

Beyond energy, however, little remains of a once-close relationship. Diplomatic ties are maintained at the level of charge d’affaires after the expulsion by Mr. Chavez of the U.S. ambassador in September of last year and the U.S. reciprocation, although Mr. Chavez now says he wants to exchange ambassadors.

Cooperation across the board is slight. Mr. Chavez’s foreign policy in the Americas is openly focused on inserting Venezuelan influence as a counterweight to the U.S. — above all through the use of “petro-diplomacy” to supply subsidized oil to countries of key interest or by Venezuelan purchases of national debt and economic assistance in the region.

His anti-American rhetoric has been enthusiastically taken up by Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega in Bolivia and Nicaragua, respectively, junior partners of Venezuela. Mr. Chavez has looked to countries outside the region such as Russia and Iran for arms purchases and closer ties in order to further distance Venezuela from the U.S.

The Obama administration must confront the same challenges regarding Venezuela that vexed the government of George W. Bush, although under better circumstances. Mr. Obama’s personal popularity in the region, his early overtures toward dialogue with Cuba, and the first, promising diplomatic steps of his administration in reaching out to the Americas provide Mr. Obama with greater credibility as he deals with Venezuela.

Several important considerations will be in play in shaping the new administration’s Venezuela policy. One is the energy relationship — important to both sides and unlikely to change in the short term. Another is the reality that even under the worst of circumstances, Venezuela itself poses no security threat to the U.S.

What will be of interest to U.S. policymakers — and to other countries in the region, however, will be Mr. Chavez’s relations with his neighbors, especially Colombia, and the overall conduct of his foreign policy. In this regard, Mr. Chavez’s enthusiasm for Iran is especially noteworthy.

Another consideration will be the state of what remains of democracy in Venezuela. U.S. influence on this issue is negligible and to date other nations in the Organization of American States have shown little interest. As long as elections are held and a modicum of respect for human rights is observed, international attention will be minimal.

The U.S. should remain open to positive steps toward cooperation on Mr. Chavez’s part, regardless of the scant likelihood of this happening. It should keep on the table its standing offer to work with Venezuela on issues of mutual interest if that desire is reciprocated.

At the same time, the U.S. should pursue a policy of constructive engagement with the other countries in the Americas — including Cuba — across a broad agenda, sending a message of partnership and shared interest.

A more robust and effective U.S. presence in the Americas is the best response to Mr. Chavez. Any degree of rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba would be most unwelcome news for the Venezuelan leader.

Peter DeShazo is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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