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THE INDEX — September 9, 2009

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Peter Wilson: Chávez's Crackdown Makes U.S.-Venezuelan Thaw More Difficult

Peter WilsonNo doubt about it, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, stole the spotlight at this weekend's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Pictures of the two men smiling and shaking hands made front pages of newspapers throughout the hemisphere, and Chávez's gift of “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to Obama propelled the book to best seller status at Amazon.com.

Both men professed to want closer relations, ending nearly a decade of mutual suspicion and distrust during which Chávez once made headlines by calling former U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" at the United Nations and accusing Washington of plotting his overthrow and assassination. Likewise, the Bush administration repeatedly charged Chávez with destabilizing the region through his populist actions.

As late as last month, Chávez, who has built his populist presidency on opposition to U.S. policies, called Obama an "ignoramus" and said he was no different than Bush. Hours after the summit, Chávez changed tack, saying he welcomed the possibility of the two countries exchanging ambassadors again—although both countries expelled senior diplomats in September.

The honeymoon may be short-lived as the new bonhomie coincides with Chávez's increasingly aggressive attacks against his opponents and his country's press following his electoral victory in February that paved the way for him to serve indefinitely as the country's president.

Peter Wilson: Those in Glass Houses...

Peter WilsonHopes that an Obama presidency could thaw ties between the United States and Venezuela are quickly receding after President Hugo Chávez called the U.S. president an "ignoramus" this past weekend. Chávez went on the offensive Sunday, during his weekly broadcast over remarks President Barack Obama made two months ago criticizing the Venezuelan leader for supporting Colombian guerillas and being an obstacle to regional progress. The new Chávez offensive coincides with stepped up attacks against the country's opposition and fresh overtures to Moscow, including the offer of Venezuelan airfields for Russian long-range bombers. It also dents rumors of an impending thaw in ties between the two countries after Chávez's meeting last week with U.S. Congressman William Delahunt. Chávez's blunt talk may be intended to take away some of Obama's thunder at next month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, when the two leaders will be jockeying for position and press attention. The Venezuelan head of state, who wants to be acknowledged as a regional leader, may also be smarting after Obama met Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva earlier this month, signaling that the new U.S. administration's principal focus in Latin America is, for now, Brazil. Chávez, who just won voter approval last month to abolish the country's presidential term limits, may also be attempting a preemptive strike as differences with Washington are bound to increase in the coming weeks. (The de facto leader of the Venezuelan opposition, Manuel Rosales, is expected to be arrested for alleged corruption within days, which will inevitably raise political tensions in the country and raise charges of political repression.) Chávez has also sought to limit the power of opposition governors, who won five states in last year's election, taking control of the three largest, as well as Caracas and Maracaibo, the two biggest cities. Now, however, the country's National Assembly, which is overwhelmingly controlled by the president's followers, has talked about creating a post of vice president to oversee the country's capital—which would in effect strip a major Chávez critic, Mayor Antonio Ledezma, of any real power. To further bind the hands of the opposition, the assembly also rewrote the country´s Decentralization Law, stripping local states of their control over ports, airports, and highways, an important source of revenue. Chávez seems to be hoping that the cut off in revenue to opposition-led states will lead to a voter revolt and the possible recall of anti-Chávez governors. Meanwhile, the president is stepping up efforts to dampen dissent as the economy falters in the face of falling revenue from oil sales. He earlier removed police, hospitals, and schools from control of regional authorities. Such steps, which have been widely criticized by the country's opposition as well as international organizations, will likely be questioned by President Obama in future international forums. Given the war of words that may ensue, Chávez may think it better to step away now from pursuing any thaw in ties, especially as the chances of success seem to be diminishing.

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