Will Venezuelans Tire of Chavez's US-Bashing?
By Vinod Sreeharsha

For most Venezuelans, President Hugo Chavez's headline-grabbing speech at the United Nations General Assembly was just another day at the office. After all, Chavez has been calling President Bush "El Diablo" for over a month now, after his prior nickname, "Mr. Danger," lost its luster. He describes his Dec. 3 re-election bid as a battle between two candidates, "Hugo Chavez and El Imperio."
But increasingly, analysts here are questioning how much further President Chavez can take his anti-yanqui rhetoric. Any rupture in commercial relations with the United States would directly impact Chavez's supporters. Plus, Venezuelans are increasingly fed up with confrontational politics, having endured them for more than seven years from both Chavez and opposition leaders.
Though President Chavez maintains in excess of 50 percent support, only 16 percent of Venezuelans agree with his confrontational style with the United States, according to a recent poll by Hinterlaces, a Venezuela polling firm.
Granted, that style that has previously served Chavez well. His largest decrease in popularity throughout his term, 30 percentage points, occurred during the period of least conflict, between his re-election in 2000 and the opposition work-stoppage in December 2001, according to Venezuelan pollsters Consultores 21.
While many Americans may have heard President Chavez's extreme rhetoric for the first time, William Brownsfield, the US Ambassador to Venezuela, carries a list with him of all the accusations President Chavez has leveled at the United States. The tally exceeds 30, including blame for deadly floods, a local bus driver strike that never occurred and the bombing of a regional Electoral Committee office.
One often-repeated claim of Chavez's is that the United States is about to invade Venezuela. Following the 2005 UN General Assembly session, President Chavez, while interviewed on "Nightline," cited as evidence documents referring to an Operation Balboa. But Balboa turned out to be a war-game exercise run by Spain. The original documents were not even in English.
Venezuelan Frieda Lopez, when asked if she supports her president, says, "For now, but my problem is economic." Assessing the threat of a US invasion, she says, "It is not credible."
If economic relations with the United States were to rupture, President Chavez's supporters would be among the most directly impacted. Many of their social programs are funded directly by oil revenue, and the United States still accounts for 50 percent of Venezuela's oil exports, according to Veneconomia, a Venezuelan economic consultancy.
And Che Guevara T-shirts notwithstanding, Chavez supporters depend on US products as commerce between the two countries has skyrocketed in recent years.
Eduardo Garcia lives in Petare, one of Caracas's largest barrios. When he looks around his neighborhood, Garcia says, he sees many Motorola cell phones and GE televisions. Garcia says his Chavista neighbors, like all good Venezuelans, "like to buy things, especially imported products."
Garcia is positive about the Chavez government. "I like the change it is generating," he says. When asked if he fears a US military invasion, he laughs. "No, you really think the US will invade Venezuela?"
To be sure, President Chavez has legitimate reasons to lambaste the United States, which has tried to undermine him several times since he was first democratically elected in 1998.
In October 2001, Washington requested that Mr. Chavez publicly retract criticism that he had made, in Venezuela, of the US war in Afghanistan, well within his right as a sovereign leader. Carlos Romero, a political scientist at Central University in Venezuela and an expert in US-Venezuelan relations, describes such US hubris as a "provocation," and a "turning point" in the deterioration of US-Venezuelan relations.
Then the United States, despite its support of the Democratic Charter adopted at the 2001 Summit of Americas in Quebec, was quick to recognize the leaders of a coup in 2002 that quickly failed. The United States has provided opposition groups with millions of dollars of support in the name of "democracy."
Lately, the Bush administration has been keeping a low profile, Romero says, perhaps a disappointment to President Chavez.
That could change after his performance in New York, but even Chavez's Venezuelan critics hope not. Though more diplomatic, they are not much bigger fans of Washington than they are of their president.
According to a Consultores 21 poll last year, even among anti-Chavistas, President Bush's approval rating was a lowly 37 percent.
Michael Shifter, with the Interamerican Dialogue, a Washington, DC-based think tank, says that in Latin America "anti-Americanism is not restricted to the left." He adds that "the left does not like the US. The right does not trust the US."
Many anti-Chavistas fault Washington for negligent foreign policy toward Latin America, focusing on one-sided free trade deals and ignoring social development. They also prefer Washington not provide any more ammunition to President Chavez's anti-yanqui campaign.
Ramon Jose Medina, Secretary of International Relations for Primera Justicia, a main opposition party, says that the United States has mishandled almost every dispute with Chavez since he became president. "Chavez has emerged stronger each time," Medina says. - New America Media


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