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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December 2004, 09:56 GMT
US wrestles with Venezuela policy
By Iain Bruce
BBC News, Caracas

"What's her name?" quipped President Hugo Chavez, as he came out from voting in Venezuela's local elections last month. "Condolences Rice?"

Hugo Chavez speaking as he receives the Gaddafi human rights prize
Chavez seems to enjoy taunting the US - "the empire", as he calls it
It was two days before the US presidential election and he had been asked about the future of relations with the United States.

He referred to an interview the White House national security adviser had given a few days earlier.

"She says Chavez is a real problem. Yes, I'm a problem. But if Chavez is a problem, an infinitely bigger problem for the world is the government of President Bush."

He accused Ms Rice of demonstrating "profound ignorance and insensitivity" towards Latin America and of being "the true imperialist who thinks they rule the world".

Such outbursts are not uncommon.

In Brazil and Spain in recent weeks, President Chavez has made similar references to Condoleezza Rice, now the US secretary of state-designate.

Later in Iran, he spoke of the need for a multi-polar world, in opposition to one dominated by the United States.

And on his return to Caracas last week, he urged an international gathering of intellectuals and artists to "help humanity go on the offensive against the empire".

Countervailing influences

However, this is only one side of the turbulent relationship between Caracas and Washington.

It is not necessarily the best guide to what lies ahead.

New Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez
Naming Rodriguez as foreign minister shows the importance of oil
Two other factors are pushing in the opposite direction: high international oil prices and the fact that both leaders have now notched up decisive victories at the polls.

The first means there is a strong, shared interest in making sure Venezuelan crude keeps flowing northwards.

As Venezuela's under-secretary for foreign affairs, Temir Porras, told the BBC, "We know we have a strong and prosperous commercial relationship and we want to keep it."

According to Mr Porras, the second factor means that "now maybe both leaders are aware of the fact that their people are backing them. So maybe it's a signal to both parts that they need to find an agreement."

Common agenda

He believes this new situation has encouraged some pragmatists inside the US government to advocate a fresh approach to Venezuela.

"They can see that Venezuela is not such a 'rogue state' and that, despite ideological differences, there is a bilateral and regional agenda that can be reached."

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Powell has suggested it might be time to co-operate with Caracas
This approach seemed clear in the months following President Chavez's victory in the August referendum on his rule.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a visit to Brazil, called for more co-operation with Venezuela.

Washington's new ambassador in Caracas, William Brownfield, suggested "turning down the volume" of bilateral relations to allow for a gradual improvement, "without giving up any of our basic values".

And the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Richard Lugar, wrote an opinion piece in the Miami Herald calling for a new approach to Venezuela, based on "muscular engagement" with Caracas.

But in Temir Porras' view, "there are still some more radical factions within the US administration that have an ideological approach that has led the US to catastrophe in Venezuela."

Hawks ascendant?

So which aspect of US-Venezuelan relations is likely to prevail?

It is true that the improvement signalled after 15 August has looked under serious strain in recent weeks.

Funeral of Venezuelan prosecutor Danilo Anderson
Chacon (left) hinted at a US role in the death of Danilo Anderson
The announced replacement of Mr Powell, and the predicted continuation of Roger Noriega as US assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, looked to most observers like a defeat for the pragmatists and a strengthening of the foreign policy hawks in the second Bush administration.

The publication of CIA papers making clear that the US administration did know about the plans for a coup attempt in April 2002, have been publicly interpreted by many in Venezuela's government as confirmation of what they say they already knew - that Washington itself engineered the attempts to overthrow President Chavez.

Passions on the Venezuelan side have been raised further by the assassination of Public Prosecutor Danilo Anderson in a car-bomb attack in Caracas on 18 November.

US Ambassador Brownfield was quick to condemn the attack and offer US help in the investigation.

But the rumour mill was already turning fast. Venezuela's Interior Minister Jesse Chacon soon alleged connections between the suspected culprits and the either the CIA, or paramilitary groups based in Florida, or both.

President Chavez' hasty appointment of Ali Rodriguez as Venezuela's new foreign minister fitted into this context.

A former energy minister and secretary general of Opec, and himself a veteran guerrilla leader of the 1960s, the new minister was seen as being more of a match for the next incumbent at the US State Department, who has an oil background of her own.

Few options

But even if there is a hardening of the personnel on both sides, this may not spell the end of the pragmatic approach.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state-designate
Rice is seen as a hawk in the Bush administration
After all, even hawks have to deal with realities. And one of these is that the United States, in the short-term, does not have many options.

The Venezuelan opposition is in disarray. Or, as Senator Lugar politely puts it, "democratic alternatives currently have substantial limitations".

Until that changes, "muscular engagement", and working with Venezuela's neighbours to watch and contain Mr Chavez, as Ms Rice herself suggests, may be Washington's best, or only, bet.

For Venezuela's part, the government will doubtless continue to exercise what Temir Porras calls its sovereign right to denounce the impact of "imperialism" in Iraq, or "neo-liberalism" in Latin America.

But its declared priority is to use the country's increased oil wealth to eradicate poverty and build a different kind of society at home - a presidential commission is due to present a strategy for this before Christmas.

So it may prefer to keep its confrontation with "the empire" largely rhetorical, at least for the time being.

In Mr Porras' words to the BBC: "They have to understand that democracy and social welfare can in no way be a danger to US interests."

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