RAY SUAREZ: Venezuelan Hugo Chavez has courted controversy for much of his six-year presidency. And the United States is a favorite target of his nationalist rhetoric. Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have been deteriorating steadily since Chavez, a former army paratrooper, an anti-globalist and fiery leftist, was elected in December 1998.
The South American nation of 25 million holds special interest for the U.S. Venezuela is America's third-largest source of imported oil. Chavez has flaunted high-profile meetings with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2000, and Cuba's Fidel Castro last year. This year, he hosted Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, and cheered on Iran's efforts to defy the U.S. and go ahead with the nuclear program.
Chavez has repeatedly accused the U.S. of supporting efforts by the domestic opposition in Venezuela to remove him from office. In April of 2002, when a coup briefly removed him from power, Bush administration officials saluted the short-lived effort to oust him while denying involvement in the plan to get rid of an elected government. At her confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized Chavez and his government.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We have right now a government in Venezuela that has been unconstructive in important ways. And I would just urge that the entire neighborhood, as well as the Venezuelan government, look at what's happening in terms of democracy in Venezuela, in terms of Venezuela's relations with its neighbors.
RAY SUAREZ: Chavez responded with scathing personal attacks against Rice, calling her "pathetic" and "illiterate." He's even made sexual jokes. And during this rally in Caracas in January to celebrate the anniversary of Venezuela's democracy, he targeted President Bush and what he called "North American imperialism."
PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ (Translated): I bet a dollar to Mr. Bush to see who will last longer: Him there in the White House or this Venezuelan, Hugo Chavez, here in the Mira Flores Palace. Let's see who lasts longer, Mr. Bush.
RAY SUAREZ: In recent speeches in televised interviews, Chavez has called for all developing nations to unite against U.S. political and economic policies. Last month, Chavez accused the Bush administration of trying to assassinate him, and threatened to cut off his country's oil supply to the United States.
PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ (Translated): If that were to happen the United States can forget about getting even a drop of petroleum from Venezuela. I am absolutely sure of that.
RAY SUAREZ: But it's not just U.S. adversaries who've dealt with Chavez. Recently, NATO ally Spain agreed to sell military equipment to Venezuela. The U.S. also has expressed concern about reports that Chavez had negotiated with Russian arms dealers to buy 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles last year, a deal Chavez described as keeping President Bush from being master of the world.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld expressed his concerns about those reports on a recent visit to neighboring Brazil, saying he couldn't imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s, and that it wouldn't be good for the hemisphere. But Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva, said, "Venezuela has the right to remain a sovereign nation and to make its own decisions."
Today Secretary of State Rice headed off to her first South American mission, visiting Venezuela's two big neighbors, Brazil and Colombia, but with no stop in Venezuela on her itinerary.
Today Venezuela canceled a military exchange program with the United States, and ordered five U.S. officers returned home. President Chavez said they were trying to foment unrest in his military. For more on all of this we get two views. Arturo Valenzuela is professor of government and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. He held several posts in the Clinton administration. Miguel Diaz is a Latin American analyst. He's worked at the CIA in the early 1990s. He's now a consultant, journalist and columnist.
Professor Valenzuela, this breaking of military ties, is this a big development or just the sign of deepening estrangement?
ARTURO VALENZUELA: Well, I think it is a sign of deepening estrangement. It's part of Chavez' own bluster. He actually sees this more in nationalist terms. He sees the United States, for example, arming the Colombians, which we are doing to cut our drug efforts. But from his point of view, all of the money that goes into Colombia to help the Colombians fight drugs could affect the relationship with Venezuela. And Colombian and Venezuela have historically had significant boundary differences. So he kind of sees it in geo strategic terms. And he is given to bluster. And there's nothing he likes more than, in fact, having the United States criticize him because he stews in that juice.
He loves that sort of thing and he uses it for his own, I think, polarizing statements and his own bluster. Let me say something about Chavez, though, that I think is very important for everybody to understand. Chavez came to power because of the collapse of the traditional parties, because of a discrediting of the previous system, in a sense. And he was elected president twice, he has a majority of the national assembly, so he's a very popular president and he got there democratically. And I think that that's why -- and, as I say, he thrives on this confrontation with the United States, in fact to increase his popularity among his people.
RAY SUAREZ: So Miguel Diaz, why this escalating war of words?
MIGUEL DIAZ: Well, I think it's mostly coming from Chavez' part. I think he has defined himself in opposition to the U.S. for domestic as well as international reasons. Domestically, I think he's trying to solidify his regime. And the way he's trying to do that is by galvanizing his militant support base and by picking a fight with the U.S. he does that.
Internationally, he wants to replace Castro as the leader of the left. Thus far, I don't think he's succeeded in that effort. I think his support in Latin America is pretty limited. However, the Latin American democratic leadership is not willing at this time to take on Chavez because they have to deal with their own left as well, who are supportive generally of Chavez. So they're in a political predicament to a certain extent. And they're being very weary of taking Chavez on.
Now I think the U.S. could go a long way in enticing a lot of these governments to take a more proactive role in opposition to Chavez if we were to present evidence of all these allegations about his wrongdoings throughout the hemisphere. Supposedly, he is involved in Bolivia and other weak democracies to try to sabotage those governments there. There are all types of rumors. So I think it's incumbent upon the administration and those who believe this to actually put the evidence on the table.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me get your response to two points that Miguel Diaz made. First, do you agree that this is mostly been from Venezuela's part, that this tit-for-tat hasn't gotten as much response from the United States?
ARTURO VALENZUELA: Well, I think the United States has responded at times. I would agree that Chavez is the one who really benefits, in a sense, from this. But every time the United States really criticizes him, it makes his day. And he can go on his radio programs and say, "the United States said this about me or that about me."
Now, the problem that the United States has, not only with Chavez and Venezuela, with many of his supporters, but also with other leaders in the region, is that the United States says Chavez has to stay on the democratic road, and yet U.S. policy recently, for example, as your report said earlier, countenanced an unconstitutional government to replace him. There was a semi-coup that took place. The military put in a provisional government, and the United States applauded that. And that of course violates what the United States says its dedication to democratic politics in the region.
And more recently, for example, the United States did not criticize the leader of Ecuador when he twice shut down the Supreme Court, and yet the United States criticizes Chavez, so other leaders in the region see the United States with kind of a double discourse, which has affected the United States' prestige and moral leadership in the region. And it's related also to such things as Abu Ghraib and the war in Iraq, and things like that.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you take as seriously as Miguel Diaz does the possibility that the Chavez government may be making mischief elsewhere on the continent?
ARTURO VALENZUELA: I think he would like to make mischief in the continent. I think he in fact styles himself -- and I agree with Miguel on this -- as the new leader of the region, that he's going to be the person who is going to represent the dispossessed more than others.
But I also agree that the United States does not get anywhere if it just simply says, "Oh, he's been doing these things and doesn't come up with the proof of it." Because the credibility of the United States, in terms of its ability to persuade others that its intelligence and what it sees in various parts of the world is fact, is significantly being questioned in the region.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you yourself believe when that when he calls himself a Fidelista, a follower of Fidel Castro, that it's something more than just being provocative; that he is involved in making -- in causing disturbance in other regimes in the continent?
MIGUEL DIAZ: Well, there is supposedly over 15,000 Cubans in Venezuela. His relationship with Castro is more than a political gesture. He's working with Venezuelan personnel to basically arm, in my view, a repressive state. And part of the logic, in my view, in arming or buying these $100,000 rifles, AK-47s, is supposedly to arm his support base.
That's exactly what Castro has done in Cuba with the civil militias that have allowed him to be in power for as long as he has. I think there is no misgiving on my part that he values his relationship with Cuba. He might want to imitate a lot of the things that are going on in Cuba, which are against the interest, in my view, and the will of why the Venezuelans elected him in the first place.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, oil in recent months has gone up over $50 a barrel. Does this give Chavez the possibility for extending his influence beyond his borders in a way that he never could have dreamed of before?
ARTURO VALENZUELA: Not only has it given him the possibility of extending his influence throughout the region -- the Caribbean, for example, is quite clear -- but it's also, of course, empowered him much more in Venezuela. Because with historic oil prices, he gets a significant amount of the resources of Venezuela's exports of oil, and he can use it.
And he's using it very effectively and very skillfully to create social programs throughout the country and to project himself as the one president in Venezuela that really cares about the poor and the dispossessed. This is his power base. And, as I say, he is you can succeeding in doing that.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you think most Venezuelans have seen any signs of this $64 a barrel oil?
MIGUEL DIAZ: I think they are. And I don't -- I think Chavez is doing more for the marginals in Venezuela than other presidents have. But he's doing that at the expense of democratic liberties. And there are better models out there, the Chilean model, for example, that respect those democratic liberties.
In the case of Chile, they've been able to reduce their poverty levels from 50 percent in the early 70s to about 18 percent right now. Chavez is taking advantage of this oil windfall to spread some of the wealth around. But he's doing it at a cost that I think is hurtful to Venezuela's democracy.
RAY SUAREZ: Now recently, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, documents were obtained from the United States government that indicate that elements in the U.S. Government, in the Bush administration, knew that there was a coup under way in Venezuela, and did not rise to support the current government.
Does this make inevitably the relations between these two states strained until either Bush or Chavez leaves office?
MIGUEL DIAZ: Well, the Chavez government have been making all types of unfounded allegations about what the U.S. is up to in Venezuela. I don't agree with Arturo that the U.S. was behind the April 2002 coup attempt. From what I've gathered from the GAO study under subject the U.S. was not involved. I think we bungled in our response to it, but I don't think there was a direct involvement of the U.S. Government in what happened on that date.
ARTURO VALENZUELA: Can I clarify? I did not say that the United States was behind the coup. What I said was the United States countenanced a clearly unconstitutional government, and applauded it when it came into office. In that sense I agree with Miguel. We blundered very badly the handling of that situation, and lost a significant amount of moral and political credibility in the region as a result.
RAY SUAREZ: But does that event mean that relations, at least for the near term, are going to be strained between these two countries?
ARTURO VALENZUELA: They're difficult, because Chavez believes that the United States, in fact, applauded his removal from an unconstitutional way. And he sees the United States as somebody that in fact is directly hostile to them. Now ironically, U.S. policy, in my view, has been mistaken because we have a policy of simply responding rhetorically to Chavez, but there's no meat behind this rhetoric.
And either we have to take one of two positions: We have to have better engagement with Chavez -- and I think he would respond positively to that; or we need to really make clear that we want to confront Chavez more than in rhetorical terms, but perhaps in real terms.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick response to those points from Miguel.
MIGUEL DIAZ: Well, I think the U.S. government has given Chavez the benefit of the doubt from the beginning, from the Clinton administration, even after Chavez survived the referendum in August of last year. There was a decision shown on the part of the administration to start -- restarting again the relationship. Having said that, Chavez, as I said before, has defined himself in opposition to the U.S., and he would not countenance any kind of healthy relationships with the U.S.
In fact, if he could he would like to sever whatever relationship he has with the U.S. So I don't think it's really our fault here. I think the U.S. would like to maintain a positive relationship with Venezuela. Venezuela is an important oil supplier. We've been -- it's been a very admirable relationship with Venezuela for many, many decades. But I think Chavez has ulterior motives that go beyond his project in Venezuela. I think his motive is to propagate his revolution to other parts of Latin America.
RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, that's all we have time for tonight. Thanks.