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Congressional Staff Discussion: U.S.-Venezuela Policy

By Lauren Pierce
March 12, 2007

Event: Congressional Staff Discussion: U.S.-Venezuela Policy
Location: Rayburn House Office Building

"We've unnecessarily contributed to strengthening [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez's position through a series of mistakes - and we continue to do it," said Michael Shifter of U.S. policy towards Venezuela.

Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, met with members of the Dialogue's Congressional Staff Working Group on March 12 to discuss his recently published report, Hugo Chavez: A Test for U.S. Policy.

According to the report, the Bush administration's relations with Venezuela have been conducted in an ad hoc and reactionary manner. Shifter asserts that the U.S. government must instead develop a coherent, consistent policy towards the country. Engaging in tit-for-tat arguments with Chávez is counterproductive, said Shifter.

At the meeting, Shifter explained the various guidelines he has set forth in the report, including his recommendation that the Bush administration must exercise more restraint in its rhetoric regarding Chávez. In order to counter Chávez's influence in the region, Shifter emphasized that a positive, proactive "social agenda should be the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward the region." A strengthened U.S. presence and improved international image may be the best way to contain Chávez's reach and impact in the hemisphere.

Shifter added that while resources and aid are important components of this policy, more generous immigration and trade policies and support for infrastructure would also contribute towards a more favorable image of the United States in the hemisphere. Such measures would signal a greater intent to reduce poverty and promote equality and human rights.

Shifter warned that the United States should not have unrealistic expectations about building a 'united front' against Chávez in the hemisphere. "[Latin American governments] are not prepared to side openly with the United States," he explained. Nevertheless, the U.S. government can still work to better its alliances with Latin American leaders. Shifter cited Bush's energy partnership with President Lula of Brazil as one example.

Participants asked if such a shift in U.S. policy would represent "too little, too late," and if it would be more productive to wait for the next administration to deal effectively with Chávez. "Lots of costs pile up with time," Shifter responded. "It is better to try to reduce problems now."