CARACAS, Venezuela — The case of pro-democracy activist Maria Corina Machado, who is scheduled to go to court next month on charges of treason and conspiracy, illustrates just how far the U.S. image has fallen in the nine months since President Hugo Chavez defeated a recall effort.
The act of treason Machado allegedly committed? Her human rights organization accepted $31,000 from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy for voter education workshops before the divisive August recall referendum.
"We've gotten money from other countries and it hasn't been a problem," Machado said of the donation to her Sumate (Join Up) civic awareness movement. "I could go to jail for 16 years for something that is perfectly legal," said the single mother of three.
Relations between Washington and the leftist Venezuelan president, who has declared a "revolution for the poor" against what he calls Yankee imperialist oppression, have never been smooth. But since he defeated the recall effort, Chavez has become even more antagonistic, using profanity in describing President Bush and making vulgar suggestions for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after she described him as a threat to the stability of the region.
The government's crackdown on Machado and others who accepted U.S. money or guidance in democracy-building coincides with fresh curbs on other rights and an escalation of anti-U.S. denunciations, all factors in a growing sense among U.S. officials that relations with the ascendant Chavez are in for a difficult run.
Government moves to impose controls on the media, seize private land, buy weapons and expand business with Cuba have stirred concern in the Bush administration. But U.S. officials decline to say much publicly about the actions they see as an erosion of human rights and a barrier to improving relations.
"The Venezuela-U.S. relationship is not in its best moment right now," U.S. Ambassador William Brownsfield said. "Our task obviously is to search for areas where we could make progress in the bilateral relationship while accepting that we have some serious and fundamental differences of opinion and vision in the region."
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez believes the United States wants a neo-colonial relationship with his oil-rich country and that it hopes to drive a wedge between Venezuela and other Latin American nations.
"Venezuela is constantly being attacked by the United States. They try to isolate the country, even though we have always had good relations with neighboring countries. None of our neighbors have any complaints," Rodriguez said, citing comments by State Department officials that Chavez represents a negative force in the region.
The foreign minister said, however, that he detected a more conciliatory tone in Rice's comments about Venezuela during her recent tour of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and El Salvador. Rice told reporters that Washington wanted good relations with Venezuela, and refrained from directly criticizing Chavez or his increasingly close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
During her confirmation hearing, Rice said the steps Chavez had taken against the media and political opponents were "deeply troubling."
"I think now that Condoleezza Rice can see that U.S. perceptions clash with ideas in Latin America," Rodriguez said, insisting that Venezuela was "totally open to constructive solutions" to its problems with the United States as long as Washington showed respect for this country's right to make its own choices.
Rodriguez alluded to the National Endowment for Democracy donations to groups such as Sumate as illegal interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela. The constitution prohibits foreign donations to political parties, but nongovernmental organizations are authorized to accept aid. Sumate volunteers took part in a petition drive for the recall referendum, irking Chavez supporters and stirring accusations that they are a political rather than civic movement.
Although average Venezuelans have had cordial relations with U.S. citizens, the steady stream of anti-U.S. commentary from the president appears to be eroding that legacy.
A poll released early this month by the independent Datanalysis firm here indicated that 43% of respondents were critical of Bush and less than 12% approved of his policies.
"This is unprecedented, that so many Venezuelans have critical views of the United States, and it shows that Chavez's anti-imperialist rhetoric is penetrating all groups," said the polling firm's director, Luis Vicente Leon.
His latest survey also charted an approval rating of 70.5% for Chavez, the highest since his December 1998 election.
Some Venezuelans see the war of words between Caracas and Washington as the fault of both sides.