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The high road to Caracas

Washington should heed Venezuela's opposition leader and greet Chavez's election victory with grace.

December 05, 2006

THERE ARE PLENTY of reasons for Venezuelans not to like Hugo Chavez. Crime, especially murder, has skyrocketed during his eight years as president. Corruption is ubiquitous -- the country ranks No. 138 out of 163 on Transparency International's annual misgovernance index (the higher the number, the more corrupt the country is perceived to be). Democratic institutions have been subverted, foreign investors are jittery and Chavez's clownish anti-American rhetoric has made Venezuela a pariah in most Western countries, even if it has warmed the hearts of dictators everywhere.

None of that mattered Sunday, when Chavez was reelected with an impressive 61% of the vote. The source of Chavez's popularity is apparent: High oil prices have fueled 9% annual growth in Venezuela and allowed him to buy the loyalty of the poor by pumping oil revenue into social programs. Oil wealth also has given him free rein for socialist tinkering -- such as seizing energy production facilities and increasing government control over the private sector -- that has backfired in nearly every nation in which it's been tried.

Yet as long as the petrodollars pour in, Chavez will remain a daunting political force, and the impracticality of his economic policies will be rendered moot. And if he has his way, he may be in charge for a lot longer than six more years; he has promised to push through a constitutional reform ending term limits for Venezuela's president.

Not all the news was bad for the beleaguered opposition, led by the middle and upper classes. In the past, it has reacted badly to Chavez's political successes, including an attempted coup in 2002. These moves only made Chavez stronger by allowing him to paint his opponents as undemocratic. By gracefully conceding after the election results became clear, opposition candidate Manuel Rosales has assured that the coalition he patched together will continue to be a political player.

The U.S. should also take the high road. President Bush, a.k.a. "the devil" in Chavez's lexicon, should disappoint the Venezuelan leader by taking his win in stride. That means ratcheting down the anti-Chavez rhetoric and U.S. support for the opposition. The point is not to play into Chavez's narrative portraying the U.S. as an intolerant hegemonist. Chavez has shown himself to be his own worst enemy, capable of acting as much the bully as he portrays Bush to be.

Washington should try to improve bilateral ties not just because there is a long-term strategic value to cordial relations with this big oil producer. A goodwill effort to be reasonable toward Caracas will also undermine Chavez's own credibility when he tries to sell his Yankees-are-devils pitch to the rest of Latin America.

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