Monday, April 20, 2009

El Presidente

President Barack Obama has not only turned the page with his personal approach to American foreign policy, he is rewriting the book. But this has sent the party of "no" into a tizzy. So Republicans are once again attacking Obama in hopes of driving his popularity down.

For one brief moment I thought that the United States had surrendered to Venezuela. At least, that seemed to be the tenor of the reaction from the frenzied fomenters of the right to a handshake and exchange of smiles between President Obama and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. Gasp!

To be sure, Hugo Chavez is a very bad person whose regime may have been responsible for as many as 6,000 killings according to the U.S. State Department. He has been accused of torture and a 2008 State Department report says, "Reports of beatings and other humiliating treatment of suspects during arrests were common and involved various law enforcement agencies." Chavez has been charged with rigging elections, cracking down on political opponents, and maneuvering a "takeover of the Supreme Court." President Chavez has taken control of virtually all the country's media and he rewrote laws so that insulting the president is punishable by up to 30 months in prison.

This past February Venezuelans voted to remove term limits for their president, a similar measure had failed in 2007. If reelected to a third term in 2012, President Chavez will serve until at least 2019. By all means, though, it is not clear sailing for "El Presidente." Annual inflation is about 30%, violent crime is up and weak oil prices have led to unpopular budget cuts. Today there was more bad news, Venezuela's first quarter oil revenues were down 33%.

Overall, President Bush's administration did not pay as much attention to Latin America as it should have. This left the door open for Chavez to manipulate governments and exert influence in the region with petrol dollars and a populist-socialist fervor. And now the Chinese are playing an ever growing role. It is time for a change of approach in American foreign policy.

Presidents Obama and Chavez met three times during the Fifth Summit of the Americas. Conservative critics accused Obama of looking weak, like President Jimmy Carter! Some people in Venezuela thought Chavez used the meetings to validate his power. But many others believe Chavez looked like a fool giving Obama a book, especially after a decade of anti-American rhetoric.

Chavez remains a polarizing figure in his own country as well as throughout Latin America. He has a huge ego, and worse, he is a wily survivor. "We just want to be treated with respect,” Chavez is quoted as saying after the summit. “We demand respect for our dignity, our sovereignty, and the self-determination of the Venezuelan people. Therefore, we are willing to pursue better relations with the new government of the United States."

Venezuela is a major source of oil for the United States. Unfortunately, Chavez is a democratically elected president. For a long time the countries of Latin America have felt largely ignored and under appreciated by the United States. This vacuum has been exploited by President Chavez and Bush's tough talk and empty diplomacy only encouraged him more.

With a handshake and a smile President Obama has signaled his desire for a new beginning in relations between the United States and all Latin American countries. This first step, however, must be followed up with a constant two-way dialog, consistent communications and mutual respect. Most importantly, American diplomacy with Venezuela must have a clear a strategy and firm goals in order to be successful.

But the more engaged and successful the United States is in Latin America, the more it diminishes Chavez in the region as well as in the eyes of all Venezuelans.

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