Washington started off on the wrong foot with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shortly after he took office in 1999. Embarking on his first international tour as head of state, Chávez took a call from a high-ranking Clinton Administration official, who told the Venezuelan leader that it would be better for his country's relations with the U.S. if he avoided visiting Fidel Castro in Cuba. Chávez, a left-wing nationalist, had yet to develop his gushing friendship with Castro, but like other leaders all over Latin America even those who dislike the Cuban leader and his politics he took umbrage at Washington's assumption that it could veto his itinerary.
Since then, of course, U.S.-Venezuela relations have plummeted farther than a Lake Maracaibo oil drill. Both sides share the blame. But the 1999 phone call bears significance. If anything, Chávez has lately supplanted Castro as Washington's priority regional pariah, yet he celebrated a decade in power this month by winning a democratic referendum that scraps presidential term limits, allowing him to run for re-election for as long as he chooses to. (See pictures of people around the world watching Barack Obama's Inauguration.)
Chávez isn't going anywhere, just as Castro didn't despite almost five decades of U.S. efforts to isolate him. That fact alone should prompt President Obama to break with the failed policies of his predecessors and meet with Chávez ahead of April's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. (First item: reinstating each other's ambassadors, who were expelled from Washington and Caracas last year after Chávez accused the U.S. envoy of conspiring against him.) Talking to Chávez is not a popular idea in Washington, given the Venezuelan leader's strident anti-U.S. histrionics. But it's smarter than trying to isolate Chávez, which in the long run would bring us more headaches than headway in the effort to repair Washington's dismal relations with Latin America.
For one thing, it's a good idea for the U.S. to have a better rapport with one of its major oil suppliers. Chávez, who said last weekend he's willing to meet with Obama, likewise seems to realize that his favorite Yanqui enemy, George W. Bush, is gone, and that a new relationship might be possible with his major oil customer. And as the Castro example demonstrates, it's hard to isolate a Latin American head of state when the rest of Latin America doesn't sign on and most nations in the region are not willing to freeze out Chávez. He may irritate them, but he also emboldens them, because his oil-fueled socialist revolution has changed the political conversation in the Americas. The fact that Venezuela's majority poor have been enfranchised for the first time has prodded the rest of Latin America to finally confront its corrosive social inequality. Even officials of moderate Latin governments say privately they're gratified that Washington's regional hegemony has been challenged and often blunted since Chávez took power. (See George W. Bush's biggest economic mistakes.)
What's more, though they may not admit it, the more moderate Latin leftists who dominate the region's politics today including Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whom Obama has invited to the White House in March know that their own electoral paths were opened in no small part by Chávez's victory in 1998. So it should have come as no surprise that many Latin American Presidents took issue with Obama's suggestion, in a Univision interview last month, that the Venezuelan leader aids terrorists. After all, last summer Chávez all but disowned Colombia's Marxist FARC guerrillas, declaring unambiguously that violence no longer had a place in the politics of the left in Latin America.
Chávez, who draws political oxygen from confrontation with the U.S., reacted to Obama's charge by suggesting that the new U.S. leader has the "same stench" as Bush (whom Chávez accused of backing a failed 2002 coup against him). But anyone who has ever sat down with Chávez knows he's a more reasonable personality one-on-one than he is with a microphone in front of 50,000 people. As a result, say Chávez supporters, Obama should rely on the more dialogue-oriented foreign policy he promised in dealing with Chávez. (The President did say on the campaign trail last year that he would be willing to meet with Chávez.) "It was good for Obama to see the reaction in Latin America" to the Univision interview, says Chávez's former ambassador to the U.S., Bernardo Alvarez. "Maybe now he'll consider what he can learn from a face-to-face with Chávez. He'd see a man with differences, yes, but also someone looking for the same things politically, like helping people who've been excluded." (See pictures of Barack Obama's nation of hope.)
Latin America also sees a certain hypocrisy in the U.S. position. Yes, Chávez has been a pain in the rear to U.S. oil companies, and he has cozied up to Iran and staged military maneuvers with Russia in the Caribbean. But Chávez, unlike U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, at least still lets U.S. oil firms have stakes in Venezuelan petro projects. And no one recalls any Venezuelan names on the list of 9/11 hijackers. Whatever the geopolitical calculus of Washington's coddling of Riyadh may be, Latin Americans still see the U.S. as giving Saudi Arabia's repressive monarchy a pass while reviling a democratically elected government in Venezuela. They see the same double standard at work in the U.S.'s maintaining an economic embargo on Cuba but not on China, despite Beijing's human-rights record, if anything, being worse than Havana's.
Chávez, like Castro, looks set to remain in power for a long time. But unlike Castro, he's likely to do so on the basis of a democratic mandate, as his decisive win in Sunday's referendum suggested. Many poor Venezuelans see his Bolivarian revolution, despite its polarizing effects on the country, as a safeguard against the looming economic pain of falling oil prices. Analysts like John Walsh, a senior associate at the independent Washington Office on Latin America, may worry that indefinite re-election would allow Chávez to accumulate excessive power, but Walsh credits Chávez with actually "restoring a modicum of confidence in Venezuela's election system."
Chávez, an earthy llanero, or Venezuelan plainsman, can be a maddening and bullying ideologue. (As far as the rest of the world is concerned, so was Bush.) And so are all the other anti-U.S. strongmen out there, from North Korea to Iran, with whom Obama believes he should grit his teeth and engage in the interest of U.S. security. To avoid doing in Latin America what he deems sensible in the Middle East and Asia would repeat Washington's careless habit of treating the continent in ways that helped give rise to the Castros and Chávezes in the first place. The best way to disarm Chávez is to give him fewer "imperialist" targets to rail at. As the anti-Bush, Obama has an advantage in that game, and he should use it. He'll find that thawing relations with Chávez before he goes to Trinidad will do a lot to break the ice with the rest of the hemisphere once he gets there.