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U.S. Quietly Pleased That a Burr Under Its Saddle Is Removed

April 13, 2002|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In recent years, the U.S. government has celebrated the march of democracy up and down the hemisphere, often declaring that with the sole exception of Cuba, every government in the region has been democratically elected.

Yet U.S. officials shed no tears Friday at news that the regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been toppled overnight in a distinctly undemocratic fashion.

In four years in office, the boastful former army colonel was fast becoming as much of an irritant to U.S. officials as Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom he emulated. The populist authoritarian threatened vital U.S. oil supplies, challenged the American campaigns against terrorism and drug trafficking, and stood in the way of U.S. efforts to build a hemispheric free-trade area.

Thus, even before the nature of the new Venezuelan regime was clear, experts were calling Chavez's removal from office a victory for the U.S. government.

"Across the board, the next regime will be more favorable to the interests of this administration," predicted Julia Sweig, deputy director for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in Washington.

Bush administration officials were trying not to crow, yet they made clear their disapproval of the fallen government. They pointed out that Chavez had gagged the media and banned constitutionally protected demonstrations while allowing his supporters to kill or injure more than 200 protesters.

"Undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday's crisis," the State Department said in a statement. Officials noted that the transitional government has promised elections and said they were confident that the crisis would be resolved "peacefully and democratically."

At the core of the United States' concern is Venezuelan oil.

With the largest reserves outside the Middle East, Venezuela is the third-largest oil supplier to the United States, providing about 15% of its stocks. The country is relatively close to refineries in Texas and Louisiana and for many years has cranked out its heavy crude in volumes that have held down prices globally.

But Chavez has sought to change that. With a new nationalist fervor, he lowered production in an effort to raise prices. Chavez also politicized the national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, by installing cronies in top management, reversing a decade-long professionalization of the company.

The mounting protests against Chavez in recent days included strikes by oil workers that drastically slowed exports, sending oil prices sharply higher. The shortfall has worried the White House, given the simultaneous strains on prices from violence in the Middle East and a temporary export embargo imposed by Iraq.

World oil markets reacted quickly to Chavez's ouster. Prices fell more than 6% on Friday, and analysts predicted that the change in regimes would help lower prices for a long time to come.

Chavez also made oil exports a part of his relationship with Castro--another source of friction with the United States.

Venezuela has recently been supplying Cuba with about 53,000 barrels of oil a day, or half the island nation's total supply, and at discount prices. Chavez styled his own regime as a revolutionary government akin to Castro's, and he spoke up for Cuba at international gatherings.

But Friday, officials of the Venezuelan oil monopoly said exports to Cuba would be stopped.

"We're not going to send a single barrel of oil to Cuba," Edgar Paredes, an oil executive, told cheering employees at a news conference in the capital, Caracas.

Further complicating matters, the United States and Venezuela seemed headed for a collision over Venezuela's alleged support for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

According to reports, hundreds of FARC guerrillas have sought sanctuary from Colombian government troops in western Venezuela. The Bush administration has recently sought congressional approval to broaden its military aid to Colombia to fight the rebels.

Chavez also stood in the Bush administration's way by refusing to allow U.S. government aircraft gathering intelligence on drug operations to fly over Venezuela.

He annoyed U.S. officials in October by denouncing American bombing raids on Afghanistan, saying the United States was "fighting terror with terror."

And Chavez has sought to obstruct the U.S. government's effort to set up a hemispheric free-trade area by aiming to create a rival trade organization.

U.S. officials have generally been cautious in comments about Chavez.

Steve Johnson, a Latin American specialist at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said the reticence of U.S. officials might have been "a pretty astute policy. There was no war of words, and he was held up to his own record."

But experts say that U.S. and other Western Hemisphere leaders must now deal with a potentially troublesome diplomatic question: Was Chavez's ouster a coup?

Both U.S. law and an international agreement signed last year by members of the Organization of American States require sanctions against governments that come to power in a coup.

The ouster was not the act of a power-hungry minority, since it was supported by the military, business, unions, the Roman Catholic Church and the news media. Yet if Western leaders overlook the fact that the overthrow might have been counter to the Venezuelan Constitution, they could send a message to military leaders in other countries that coups are acceptable, experts said.

Administration officials said privately Friday that, given the broad support for Chavez's ouster, the White House was not likely to classify it as a coup.

Yet, "if the response here is a wink and a nod, what kind of signal does that send to, for example, Argentina?" asked Sweig.

"It is awkward," said Viron P. Vaky, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. "We don't want people thinking, 'This is a way to get this done.' "

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