Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Obama’s Stance Deflects Chávez

Miraflores Palace, via Reuters - Manuel Zelaya, left, and Hugo Chávez talked Monday at a regional meeting in Nicaragua.

Perhaps the Wall Street Journal's O'Grady and its editorial board might take a look at a different opinion about the Honduras matter; well, probably not.

July 1, 2009
News Analysis
Obama’s Stance Deflects Chávez’s Finger-Pointing

CARACAS, Venezuela — From the moment the coup in Honduras unfolded over the weekend, President Hugo Chávez had his playbook ready. He said Washington’s hands may have been all over the ouster, claiming that it financed President Manuel Zelaya’s opponents and insinuating that the C.I.A. may have led a campaign to bolster the putschists.

But President Obama firmly condemned the coup, defusing Mr. Chávez’s charges. Instead of engaging in tit-for-tat accusations, Mr. Obama calmly described the coup as “illegal” and called for Mr. Zelaya’s return to office. While Mr. Chávez continued to portray Washington as the coup’s possible orchestrator, others in Latin America failed to see it that way.

“Obama Leads the Reaction to the Coup in Honduras,” read the front-page headline on Tuesday in Estado de São Paulo, one of the most influential newspapers in Brazil, whose ties to Washington are warm.

In recent years, Mr. Chávez has often seemed to outmaneuver Washington on such issues. He exploited the Bush administration’s low standing after the Iraq war and its tacit approval for the brief coup that toppled him in 2002, and blamed the United States for ills in Venezuela and across the region.

Now such tactics may get less traction, as the Obama administration presses for a multilateral solution to the crisis in Honduras by turning to the Organization of American States. In doing so, Mr. Obama is moving away from policies that had isolated the United States in parts of the hemisphere.

“With Honduras, the Obama administration has taken the mainstream road that is more in sync with other countries in the region,” said Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Honduras, which has long had close ties to Washington, has more recently emerged as a proxy for the interests of both Venezuela and the United States. With subsidized oil, Mr. Chávez lured Honduras into his leftist alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Meanwhile, the United States did not cut off development and military aid to Honduras, in an attempt to maintain influence there.

But while Mr. Chávez has allies in Bolivia and Ecuador who succeeded in changing constitutions to stay in office longer — following his example in Venezuela — his intervention in Honduras heightened tension in that country. Reports that Venezuela sent a plane to Honduras last week with election material for a referendum at the heart of Mr. Zelaya’s clash with the Supreme Court stirred considerable unease there.

Mr. Chávez portrays his support for Mr. Zelaya as another example of championing his brand of democracy, which often centers on strong presidencies at the expense of other branches of government. But some countries in Latin America are resisting the trend of allowing leaders to extend their stay in office.

In Colombia, for instance, President Álvaro Uribe, a conservative populist and an American ally, is facing difficulties in a push to allow him to run for a third term. And in Argentina, the once popular former president, Néstor Kirchner, admitted defeat this week in congressional elections, throwing into doubt hopes for him and his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to extend their dynasty in the next presidential election.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama is seeking to engage Brazil more deeply, reportedly floating the appointment of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s leftist president, as head of the World Bank. The move, if it materializes, would break the tradition of nominating an American to the post and could bolster support for Washington-based multilateral institutions while blunting Mr. Chávez’s attempts to create his own rival institutions.

Doing this while largely ignoring Mr. Chávez’s taunts holds risks for Mr. Obama, particularly if information comes to light showing that there is some truth in Mr. Chávez’s claims.

The Venezuelan president will not forget that the C.I.A. had knowledge of the coup that ousted him in 2002 yet did nothing to prevent it, and that Washington has a recent history of providing aid to groups that are critical of his government, opening the United States to charges of destabilization.

Moreover, Mr. Chávez’s antiestablishment rhetoric, aimed at elites in Washington and elsewhere, still resounds among many people here in Latin America.

But for now, at least, Mr. Obama’s nonconfrontational diplomacy seems to have caught Mr. Chávez off balance. “Chávez is beginning to understand that he’s dealing with someone with a very different approach than his predecessor,” said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy research group.

Mr. Chávez’s outsize role in the Honduras crisis, which involved threats of war if Venezuela’s Embassy in Honduras were searched, belies the limits of Venezuela’s influence in the hemisphere as the United States recalibrates its policies in a way that evokes the pragmatic diplomacy of the region’s other power, Brazil.

After the dust settles in Honduras, Mr. Chávez’s alliance will still include some of the region’s poorest and most conflict-ridden nations, like Bolivia and Nicaragua, with larger countries choosing other development paths.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chávez’s threats of belligerence in Central America led one opposition party here, Acción Democrática, to issue a statement on Monday that was full of irony: “Hugo Chávez has become the George Bush of Latin America.”

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