Ignore Hugo Chavez, and move on

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It is time for the United States to constructively ignore Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Despite concerns about the Venezuelan electoral process, for the fourth time in eight years, Mr. Chavez has prevailed at the ballot box. That Mr. Chavez likely will be with us for at least another six years requires a reassessment of U.S.-Venezuela policy. Reality, not ideology or rhetoric, must shape a new approach.


Today's globalized, oil-crazed economy makes it virtually impossible to economically isolate Venezuela. Any attempt by the United States or Venezuela to end their mutual oil-based dependence would be very costly, if not ruinous, to either country. Despite these deep economic ties, to best deal with Mr. Chavez and free the rest of its Americas policy, the United States must de-emphasize the Venezuelan leader.

Such an approach is possible because a Chavez-led Venezuela does not pose a national security threat to the United States. The extent of Mr. Chavez's influence beyond his borders is as overblown as his rhetoric. In the past year, 12 elections have been held in the Americas. A dyed-in-the-wool Chavez ally - Bolivia's Evo Morales - prevailed in exactly one, and even he is no Chavez stooge. Like Mr. Chavez's initial electoral triumph, some left-of-center victories flowed from the dispossessed rejecting decrepit political establishments, but they cannot be attributed to Mr. Chavez, nor did they yield Chavez minions. Further, Mr. Chavez's oil-revenue-dependent "solutions" to social inequality, such as they are, are inapplicable throughout the rest of the Americas.


A reality-based approach to U.S.-Venezuela policy thus requires a break with the unthinking reliance on Mr. Chavez as the reference point for all developments in the Americas. It also requires transforming the policy menu to reflect new realities.

First, escalating tensions with Mr. Chavez would be counterproductive and reckless. Congress and the Bush administration as a whole should follow the recent lead of the State Department in avoiding wars of words and empty "get tough" symbolism. Engaging Mr. Chavez's rhetorical flourishes distracts from the underlying issues that should be the focus of all U.S. pronouncements regarding Venezuela - the need to respect democratic governance and to protect human rights.

Second, although Mr. Chavez enjoys a solid claim on electoral legitimacy, his exercise of power undermines his democratic legitimacy. The United States must remain committed to promoting democracy, including democratic governance. Such efforts, however, should not focus on "regime change" but rather on strengthening those engaged in fostering democratic institutions and governance. Regime change may well be an objective, but it is neither a policy nor a strategy unto itself. Democracy promotion in Venezuela, as elsewhere in the Americas, also cannot be "Made in the USA." Instead, we should engage other hemispheric players who value the inter-American commitment to democracy and democratic governance.

Third, the United States must re-engage with the Americas and make clear its commitment to social advancement throughout the region . It must put resources behind often-empty rhetoric and transcend the false "trade, not aid" dichotomy. Smart trade policies and social investment must go hand and hand.

Smart trade policies should provide significant gains for U.S. workers, consumers and businesses and support development, democracy and the rule of law in our trading partners. Because trade agreements inevitably create losers as well as winners, smart trade policy requires steps to ensure economic opportunity for all those who may be displaced by trade. In the Americas, effective social investment like that proposed by Sen. Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, could help ensure economic opportunity for those displaced by or beyond the reach of smart trade policies.

Finally, the United States must over time seize the opportunity for transformation presented by new energy sources and technologies. A U.S. economy built upon renewable fuel sources and technologies would alter the geopolitics of energy in the Americas and provide the kind of short-term policy flexibility sorely lacking in the current U.S.-Venezuela dynamic. It would also complement smart trade and social investment policies and unlock the key to hemispheric trade agreements that foster the common good and help further economic development throughout the Americas while advancing the interests of U.S. workers, farmers, consumers and businesses.

By focusing on the real problems facing the Americas, rather than obsessing over Mr. Chavez, the United States can make clear that it stands on the side of democracy with social advancement in the region. Nothing could better underscore the emptiness of Mr. Chavez's rhetoric and advance U.S. long-term interests in the Americas.

Dan Restrepo is director of The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress. His e-mail is