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VENEZUELA - A Nation On Edge, June 2003  

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Hugo Chavez?s Neighborhood

Map of South AmericaBy David Montero


Hugo Chavez's neighborhood -- and the political atmosphere in Latin America in general -- has changed dramatically since he took office as president of Venezuela in December 1998.

In early 1999, Chavez was sometimes passed off as a throwback out of step with the rest of the region. Today the Venezuelan president looks more like the beginning of a fresh chapter on populism in Latin America. Since his election, left-leaning presidents allied with Chavez have risen to power in democratic elections in Brazil , Ecuador and Argentina.

There are political and economic implications for the United States, of course. Brazil represents the largest economy in South America, and the Brazilian market is vital to U.S. trade. Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, providing nearly 15 percent of all U.S. imports. (South America as a whole has the largest quantity of proven reserves of oil in the world outside the Middle East.)

There are consequences, too, for the U.S. government's war on drugs. Colombia continues to be a major supplier of cocaine. The effort to crack down on the Latin American drug cartels will require the cooperation of Colombia's neighbors, Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador.

None of the other newly elected presidents is nearly as pugnacious as Chavez in public comments about relations with the United States. Chavez argues, for example, that a subservient relationship with the United States is a thing of the past. "I am not against the United States," he said in August 2001. "I'm against hegemonies of any kind because they have been the cause of many injustices. The old policy of imposition, of acting as the world's sheriff -- it does not suit anyone in the new century."

But the new heads of state do share some key political tenets. The newly elected Latin American presidents are all resistant to market reforms that thus far have failed to bring prosperity to Latin America. They see an opportunity to champion the rights of their own people, particularly the poor, over the interests of foreign investors.

Chavez can count on other presidents in the region, then, to back him up in otherwise uncertain times. "All these meetings, with Fidel [Castro] and Lula [da Silva] and other presidents, strengthened my resolve," he announced in January 2003. He even spoken of his desire to form an "axis of good" with his neighbors in order to challenge the dominance of the United States.

This sort of challenge comes as unwelcome news at an awkward time in Washington, D.C. In late 2002, U.S. officials, fixated on Afghanistan and the Middle East, wobbled quite erratically on Venezuela policy. During an attempted coup d'etat against Chavez in December 2002, U.S. officials surreptitiously financed opposition to Chavez. They'd already blamed him publicly for polarizing Venezuelan society. "(Chavez) was democratically elected. He won a majority of votes," a senior U.S. official said in June 2002, but finished his statement with this: "Legitimacy is something conferred not just by a majority of votes, though."

But when Chavez was returned to power days after briefly being toppled, the administration of President George W. Bush changed its tune. The U.S. government announced that it opposed "illegal and/or violent actions" to tamper with Chavez's "democratically elected" government. The administration argued, however, that "the only peaceful and politically viable path out of the crisis (in Venezuela) is through the holding of early elections."

The challenge for U.S. policy makers is clear. They face new conditions in trying to assert U.S. interests without simultaneously damaging Latin American democracies.

Click on the topics to see snapshots sketching the relationships between Washington, D.C., and key Latin American capitals, and also between the newly elected key leaders in the region.

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Head of State
President Alvaro Uribe, right-wing and pro-United States, was elected in May 2002

Relations With Venezuela
The Colombian president disagrees with Hugo Chavez about Plan Colombia, the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Uribe's government for fighting drug traffickers. Uribe also disagrees with Chavez on both countries' policy toward guerrillas fighting for autonomy in Colombia.

Relations With the United States
Washington warmly embraced the election of Uribe. "We're ready to work with the next government," said U.S. ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson in May 2002.

In Their Own Words
       --"President Chavez has expressed the determination of his government to work with Colombia to defeat drug trafficking."
President Alvaro Uribe on Hugo Chavez

"We love Colombia, it is a sister nation. So now we're going to get things settled on the basis of mutual respect and working and building together."
       --Hugo Chavez on Colombia

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Head of State
Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva, a socialist candidate, was elected in October 2002.

Relations With Venezuela
President da Silva is sympathetic to Hugo Chavez and led an effort to help him negotiate an end to the national strike. But the two leaders differ on the U.S.-supported Free Trade Act of the Americas, which da Silva is in favor of.

Relations With the United States
Though some U.S officials consider da Silva "a pro-Castro radical who for electoral purposes had posed as a moderate," the State Department argues that he "is not a [Fidel] Castro or a [Hugo] Chavez."

In Their Own Words
"He is a great man. ... He will speed up the new ways of the left and take it back to its humanistic foundations."
       --Hugo Chavez on da Silva

"I can count on President Bush as an ally."
       --President da Silva on President Bush

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Head of State
Fidel Castro, communist leader in power since 1959, is considered "the grand old man of the Latin American left."

Relations With Venezuela
Though he has expressed his admiration for Fidel Castro, Chavez has also made clear that private ownership and foreign investment are part of his political agenda.

Relations With the United States
U.S. officials fear that Castro will work with Chavez and Brazil's da Silva to form an "axis of populism" that could threaten U.S. interests in Latin America.

In Their Own Words
"I have confidence in you. At this moment, in this country, there is no one who can substitute for you."
       --Fidel Castro on Hugo Chavez

"I deeply respect Cuba and its revolution, (but) our revolution is not communist; we are not proposing the elimination of private property."
       --Hugo Chavez on Fidel Castro

"The United States seems destined by Providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty."
       --Fidel Castro on the United States (quoting Simón Bolívar)

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Head of State
Lucio Gutierrez, a leftist candidate, was elected in January 2003. Like Chavez, Gutierrez is a former military officer who once plotted a coup against his government.

Relations With Venezuela
Gutierrez joined Chavez in opposing the U.S.-supported Free Trade of the Americas Pact, which both leaders believe would make their economies even more vulnerable to global pressures.

Relations With the United States
U.S. officials argue that Gutierrez shares "with us and the rest of the region a consensus on the basic outlines of development and security."

In Their Own Words
He "has shown me the way." But also: "We are two different people. I am a fan of governing with consensus. I will look for unity among all Ecuadoreans."
       --President Gutierrez on Hugo Chavez

"You will find in Venezuela a brother ready to stretch out his hand as a soldier and from this Bolivarian heart so that we can bring our countries closer."
       --Hugo Chavez to President Gutierrez

Ecuador should be the United States' "best ally" and make itself "attractive to investors."
       --President Gutierrez on the United States

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Head of State
Nestor Kirchner, a center-left candidate, was elected in May 2003. He is the most recently elected in a series of newly elected left-leaning presidents in Latin America.

Relations With Venezuela
Chavez has been highly critical of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but Kirchner has said that good relations with the IMF are crucial in managing his country's swelling debt.

Relations With the United States
President George W. Bush called to congratulate Kirchner on his election.

In Their Own Words
"I do not know President Chavez, but I want to have an excellent relationship."
       --President Kirchner on Hugo Chavez

"(We propose) a strategic alliance to form a South American political arena."
       --Hugo Chavez on President Kirchner

In his inaugural address, Kirchner called for a "serious, ample and mature relationship with the United States of America and the states comprising the European Union ... ."
       --President Kirchner on the United States

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David Montero is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California.