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VENEZUELA Chavez poses problems for United States

Sunday, September 11, 2005

It's support of a failed coup hurt the United State's position.
WASHINGTON -- Several months ago, the Bush administration decided to implement a two-pronged policy to contain Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez: Expose him before his regional peers as a dangerous meddler and support Venezuelan institutions such as labor unions and political parties as a way to offset his growing power.
But the policy has gotten off to a rocky start, interviews with former and current administration officials and analysts show.
Chavez, who openly touts his friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has proved adept at countering every challenge thrown his way by Washington, observers say. Latin American nations have been reluctant to turn against a neighbor flush with oil money, and administration officials say they're unwilling to reveal the most damning evidence against Chavez for fear of compromising intelligence sources.
On the public-relations front, the administration has struggled to produce an alternative to Chavez's populist appeal.
"The alternative should not be how you stop Chavez but how you have an alternative message for the region that is more compelling," said Bernard Aronson, who was assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the early 1990s.
Failed coup
The Bush administration lost much of its leverage on Venezuela after it appeared to condone a failed coup against Chavez in April of 2002, undermining Washington's reputation as a defender of democracy. Afterward, Washington supported an "electoral" and "constitutional" solution to Venezuela's political crisis. With mediation by the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, Venezuela held a recall referendum on Chavez in August 2004 that he easily won.
After the referendum, the administration went back to the drawing board to come up with a new policy. Officials say some in the government advocated a get-tough approach by, for instance, turning a spotlight on allegations that Chavez did not play fair in the referendum or turning up negative evidence about Chavez's record on human rights and corruption . There was at least one proposal that would have affected Venezuela's oil industry.
"Scrimmages within the administration on Venezuela were often very, very rough," said Miguel Diaz, a former CIA analyst on Latin America who tracked the internal debate on Venezuela last year for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.