Sleeping with the Enemy............Obama May Use Chavez as Test for Talking With Foes - Mercedes-Benz Forum

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Sleeping with the Enemy............Obama May Use Chavez as Test for Talking With Foes

Obama May Use Chavez as Test for Talking With Foes

Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- In a mirrored office tower overlooking Caracas, a top Venezuelan official says his government is ready to accept Barack Obama’s offer to talk with U.S. adversaries -- if the president-elect scraps George W. Bush’s division of the world into friends and foes.

Such categories are “simplistic,” says Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s former envoy to Washington. “Why do nations have to be friends? What we have to do is sit down and discuss issues.”

Venezuela may provide a useful first test for Obama’s pledge to engage rather than isolate antagonists. While President Hugo Chavez is one of Washington’s noisiest critics, frayed relations would likely be easier to mend than those with nations such as Iran and Cuba, whose leaders are even more hostile toward the U.S.

Still, “Obama needs to be cautious” given Chavez’s inconsistent record on democracy, says Elsa Cardozo, an international-relations scholar at the Metropolitan University of Caracas. The 54-year-old former lieutenant colonel has allowed open elections and an opposition press while consolidating power over the government and selectively persecuting political rivals.

“Expect an indirect and gradual approach” that might serve as a template for normalizing relations with other countries run by long-serving charismatic leaders who’ve consolidated power, she says.

Mutual Interest

Some Obama advisers privately suggest the president-elect might reach out to Chavez, proposing cooperation on a few issues of mutual interest -- drug enforcement, energy, poverty -- while asking Brazil and other neighbors to encourage the Venezuelan leader to negotiate in good faith in the interest of regional harmony.

Mending fences with Chavez might have a positive ripple effect, helping U.S. ties with Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba, where Chavez has doled out subsidized oil and generous financial aid.

“The Republican agenda was based just on trade, terrorism and drug trafficking,” says Leopoldo Lopez, a popular opposition politician who was among hundreds of Chavez critics banned from participating in recent elections. “If the U.S. agenda changes and the focus shifts toward justice, democracy and prosperity, it would improve relations between North and South America.”

Plummeting crude-oil prices may give Obama, 47, a window of opportunity. Venezuela’s benchmark price fell below $30 a barrel in December, according to the country’s central bank -- a quarter of last summer’s record $126.46 and just half of what Chavez’s government projected for the 2009 budget.

Devalue Currency

This could force him to devalue his currency, seek conventional loans and cut spending for domestic social programs and foreign aid. On Jan. 5, Chavez indefinitely suspended shipments of subsidized heating oil Venezuela has supplied for three years to low-income families in the U.S. through Boston-based Citizens Energy Corp.

Venezuela holds the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil reserves, so high prices “allowed Chavez to talk tough,” says Milos Alcalay, former ambassador to the United Nations under Chavez before resigning in 2004 in protest over what he called abuses of democracy. As prices fall, “the softer his rhetoric will be.”

Chavez also faces an opposition emboldened by wins in several large cities and states during the Nov. 23 elections. Those opponents are working hard to derail his efforts to amend Venezuela’s constitution and end term limits, which might extend his rule beyond 2013 when he would otherwise have to step down.

‘Much Uncertainty’

Obama is taking office “at a moment of much uncertainty” for Chavez, says Margarita Lopez Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

For now, the countries have almost no relationship beyond trade, which hit $75 billion last year, according to the Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. is the leading consumer of Venezuelan crude oil -- buying about 1 million barrels a day -- and Venezuelans are avid consumers of American cars, food and machinery.

Both sides blame the other for not cooperating on terrorism, drugs and airport security. Chavez routinely accuses the U.S. of spying and “scheming.” Veteran diplomats say communication is smoother with Syria and Belarus than with Venezuela, where no one dares reach out to Washington without his explicit directions.

‘The Devil’

Chavez, who was first elected in 1998, has relished his role as a thorn in Washington’s side, calling Bush “the devil” at the United Nations, purchasing weapons and borrowing money from Russia and China, and exchanging state visits with Cuba, Libya, Belarus and Iran.

Alberto Muller, vice president of Chavez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, says the president’s mistrust is based on harsh reality. In April 2002, the Bush administration applauded an attempted coup against him, which failed. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once compared him to Adolf Hitler.

The night of Obama’s election victory, Chavez sent a warm congratulatory letter. He has suggested what he would like, aside from respect: extradition of an anti-Castro Venezuelan terrorist whom a U.S. judge refused to hand over in 2005, elimination of the half-century embargo on his ally Cuba and renewed cooperation against drug trafficking.

Improving Relations

In an interview televised Dec. 14 on a government channel, Chavez said Obama is still the “president of the Empire, an Empire intact in all its machinery and mechanisms.” Still, “we have to watch with patience and good will and with faith that relations will improve.”

Surveys show that most Venezuelans -- including those who support Chavez -- want to patch up ties with the U.S.

“If Obama treats our president as an equal, everything will work better,” says Carlos Julio Altuve, 39, a community councilor in 23 de Enero, a sprawling Caracas slum of makeshift homes and garbage-strewn alleys.

Antonio Ledezma, the new opposition mayor of Caracas, believes Chavez’s motives are cynical: Better ties with Washington might win him votes from a pro-U.S. middle class in the constitutional referendum, which could allow him to be re- elected indefinitely.

Other Chavez critics say his eagerness to befriend Obama is a facade. His image as David to Washington’s Goliath crumbles if he befriends a government he has decried as bent on undermining him.

“Becoming friends with the U.S. could weaken Chavez” with revolutionary supporters at home and abroad, says Lopez, the opposition politician, who fears Chavez will scuttle any real progress with Washington. “We will have to wait and see.” Worldwide
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post #2 of 2 (permalink) Old 01-06-2009, 01:26 PM
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well i always though we were supposed to try and work things out with our enemies but i guess i'm just naive. its not the American way, but i just can't figure what all the hoopla is about gang violence?

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