A Chávez/Obama Showdown?

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U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duffy resumed his post in Caracas last month after being expelled by President Hugo Chávez in 2008. But he better not unpack his bags just yet. Rising tensions between the two countries are growing again, making a fresh rupture possible.

There are two flash points threatening to bring promises of better relations tumbling down.

One is Colombia; the other is Chávez’s moves against the country’s press. Both pose challenges to U.S. president Barack Obama’s policy of seeking a less confrontational accommodation with Chávez.

Colombia, for now, is drawing most of the attention. Chávez has yet to explain how anti-tank arms acquired by the Venezuelan Armed Forces in 1988 ended up in the hands of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombia said last week that three of the weapons had been confiscated last year when a FARC camp had been overrun.

Colombian officials have repeatedly accused Venezuela of providing assistance to FARC, which is classified by both the U.S. and European community as a terrorist organization. Until now, they lacked a “smoking gun,” directly linking Venezuela to the rebel group.

Chávez has so far debunked the Colombian findings, saying Bogota is using the alleged weapons as justification for allowing the United States to use three military bases along the Venezuelan border. Chávez also closed the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogota and ordered the immediate “freeze” on all ties between the two countries, the third time in three years he has taken such action. He also warned that any Colombian excursion into Venezuela would be considered an act of war.

Behind the bluster, Chávez is scrambling to control the damage. This isn’t the first time that Colombian officials have accused Chávez of supporting FARC. What makes it more serious this time is that Sweden, whose Saab Bofors Dynamics manufactured the missiles, is demanding an explanation from Chávez as well.

Therein lies the rub. There is a real danger that the United States and Europe could place Venezuela on their list of countries which support terrorism, especially if Sweden and Colombia refuse to play along with Chávez’s theatrics. Such an action would surely prod Chávez to respond.

The other issue, which is just as serious, is Chávez’s growing repression of the press. The National Assembly, which is controlled by Chávez, is considering a bill that would limit press freedoms while creating “media crimes” that could send journalists and the owners of television and radio stations, as well as newspapers, to prison.

Attorney General Luisa Ortega told Congress that freedom of expression must be limited in the country. Her remarks were met by cheers from congressmen.

The government has already started closing privately held radio stations and is likely to shutter Globovision, the opposition-controlled 24-hour news station. Chávez has repeatedly accused the latter of fanning sentiments against his government.

Human rights and journalist groups have already criticized the measures, vowing to ask the Organization of American States to invoke its democratic charter against Venezuela. Chávez is unlikely to back down, especially as the economy weakens and his disapproval rating rises.

Venezuelan support for FARC and a crackdown on press freedom may make it impossible for Obama to take a more calibrated and less confrontational approach to Chávez. Then again, the possibility of a rift with Washington and Obama may be exactly what Chávez is counting on to resurrect his flagging popularity.

Peter Wilson has lived in Venezuela since 1992. He was formerly South American team leader and Caracas bureau chief for Bloomberg News and has written about Venezuela for BusinessWeek, Time, and The Economist.

Source: WorldPolicy.org

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