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Venezuela's Election Provides Opportunity for Washington to Change Course


President Hugo Chavez's landslide victory in Sunday's election provides an opportunity to open a new chapter of US-Venezuelan relations. It was one of the most internationally monitored elections in recent memory, with observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union once again approving the results and the process. This is the fourth time that Chavez has stood for election and won, if we include the recall referendum of August 2004, which he won by a similar margin. As the famous Brazilian sociologist Helio Jaguaribi recently remarked, Chavez is "the most elected president in the hemisphere."

This would be a good time for President Bush to call and congratulate President Chavez, and bury the hatchet with our fourth largest oil supplier. To those who object that Chavez called President Bush "the devil" just last September at the United Nations, it is worth noting that on Thursday President Bush called to congratulate left economist Rafael Correa, the newly elected president of Ecuador. When asked about Chavez? UN speech last September, Correa had commented that it was an "insult to the devil," and added a couple of choice remarks of his own about President Bush which do not need to be repeated here.

Correa responded graciously to President Bush's overture and praised him as "noble" for calling. The day after our own Congressional elections, a reporter reminded President Bush that the new House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi had recently called him a liar, incompetent, and dangerous, and asked how he could work with her. He replied that "if you hold grudges in this line of work, you're never going to get anything done."

Well said. Now why not apply that philosophy to Venezuela? The Congressionally appointed Iraq Study Group is calling for dialogue with Iran and Syria. Here is a democracy just a few hours flight from Miami, which has never done anything to injure the United States and has always been a reliable energy supplier. Why not have engagement in this hemisphere as well?

The Bush Administration's strategy of trying to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors has clearly failed. Two weeks ago President Lula da Silva of Brazil took his first foreign trip, after re-election, to Venezuela, where he presided with Chavez over the inauguration of a $1.2 billion bridge financed by the Brazilian government, praising Chavez and pretty much endorsing him publicly as he headed for re-election. Most of Latin America supported Venezuela's unsuccessful bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, despite warnings and pleadings from the Bush Administration. It seems that Washington has succeeded more in isolating itself in the hemisphere, rather than Venezuela.

It is likely that Chavez would respond positively to an olive branch, although his grudges against the Bush Administration go beyond the exchange of unpleasantries - such as Donald Rumsfeld comparing him to Hitler. The Administration openly supported the military coup against his democratically elected government in 2002, and according to the US State Department, gave financial and other support "to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government." It is this and other support for Venezuela's political opposition that have done the most to poison the relationship between the two governments.*

But the hard-liners who saw Venezuela as "another Cuba" and regime change as the preferred strategy - people like Otto Reich and Roger Noriega - are now gone from the Bush Administration, and many career diplomats at the State Department would welcome a new policy of engagement, especially since Chavez is going to be president of Venezuela for another six years.

Chavez is well-known for his undiplomatic outbursts, but he also has a pragmatic side: he has very good relations with his ideological opposite, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, despite the problems of guerilla and paramilitary violence along their 2,000 mile border that have led to serious friction between previous governments.

The rest of the region would also like to see this dispute put to rest. Most countries clearly reject the new "Cold War" framework on which it is based, and do not want to choose sides. And we who live in the United States really don't need more enemies in the world.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.