How Should the U.S. Deal with Hugo Chavez and Venezuela
Byline: Peter DeShazo, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
President Obama's much-publicized encounter with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at last month's Summit of the Americas meeting underscored the extent to which the bilateral relationship between the two countries has deteriorated over the past decade.
That the visuals of the leaders simply shaking hands generated the flood of commentary that it did - including criticism of Mr. Obama in conservative circles in the United States for merely exchanging words with his Venezuelan counterpart - speaks volumes.
Historically, Venezuela and the U.S. enjoyed good relations, based not only on Venezuela's long-standing role as a major supplier of oil to the U.S. but also close ties in a wide variety of other areas. That relationship began to sour following the election of Mr. Chavez in 1998, at first slowly, then accelerating dramatically during the 2001-03 period, and finally settling into a state of sustained enmity.
Multiple factors drove the deterioration, but none more significant than the need for Mr. Chavez's worldview to cast the U.S. in the role of villain. His concepts of the Bolivarian revolution and twenty-first century socialism, imply the clash of polar opposites, with himself leading the charge against the forces of imperialism much in the manner of Fidel Castro at the height of the Cold War.
Mr. Chavez's presentation to Mr. Obama at the Summit of the classic anti-Yanqui book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent neatly reflects this outlook.
Many observers erroneously predicted that Mr. Chavez would attempt to use the Summit in Trinidad and Tobago as a platform to criticize the U.S. as he had done at the previous Summit in Argentina in 2005, when he led street demonstrations against President Bush.
But Mr. Bush provided an easier foil for Mr. Chavez, in part due to the unpopularity in the hemisphere of U.S. policy in Iraq but also because Mr. Obama's election was very well-received throughout the Americas. Mr. Obama presented a far less inviting target and Mr. Chavez was on better behavior.
The positive atmosphere in Trinidad and Tobago, however, does not dispel the reality of a bilateral relationship based on few points of cooperation and many of friction. The key element in the relationship is still trade.
Venezuela is the fourth-largest source of foreign oil imported by the U.S. - about 1.1 million barrels a day, approximately 9 percent of total imports. This is a mutually beneficial trade arrangement, although politically inconvenient for Mr. Chavez because a large percentage of his government's revenue is derived from it. Substituting another market for the U.S. would be difficult and economically costly.
Beyond energy, however, little remains of a once-close relationship. Diplomatic ties are maintained at the level of charge d'affaires after the expulsion by Mr. Chavez of the U.S. ambassador in September of last year and the U. …