Losing Bush as target for vitriol, Chavez aims at Obama

Much has been made of President Obama's willingness to engage leaders of troublesome nations, a break with his predecessor's often combative rhetoric.

But at least in one case, Obama has found himself locked in an early battle of words with volatile Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that former President George W. Bush would find very familiar.

In an interview that aired just before the inauguration on the Spanish-language network Univision, Obama said his administration would try to improve relations with Venezuela, but he was critical of Chavez's role as "a force that has interrupted progress in the region."

He insisted Chavez must stop aiding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the left-wing guerrilla army that is at war with the Colombian state.

"We need to be firm when we see this news, that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC," Obama said.

Chavez quickly responded, saying Obama had "the same stench" as Bush, echoing an infamous remark Chavez made at the United Nations when he called Bush "the devil" who left a smell of sulfur behind him.

"How uninformed Obama is" because "he repeats what Bush says," Chavez lamented. "The one who has interrupted not only the region's progress but is also throwing the world into an abyss, is, and has been, Bush."

The sparring between Obama and Chavez reveals two things.

First, the election of a liberal, black man as president poses a serious dilemma for someone used to deriding this country as the "Yankee empire."

In his recent statements, Chavez seems somewhat at a loss about how to handle the Obama phenomenon. The end of the Bush administration has deprived Chavez of one of his favorite tools to stoke up anti-American nationalism in leftist circles at home.

The timing is bad for Chavez, too. He is about to launch into a feverish campaign to get national approval for a referendum Feb. 15 seeking unlimited re-election. He already lost one bid to rewrite the constitution a year ago. This would likely be his last chance before his term ends in 2013.

Second, Obama's idea of engagement has some sharp edges to it.

In his inaugural address Obama emphasized that his foreign policy would use "humility and restraint," as well as "greater cooperation and understanding between nations." But he also had a stern warning for those leaders not willing to play ball.

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense," he said.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

To some those words appear threatening. China's leaders chose to censor the reference to dissent. Interestingly, Cuba showed no fear, publishing the address in its entirety in state media, a reflection of Raul Castro's willingness to begin a dialogue with Obama.

Talking to Chavez will be more difficult. Chavez has a mouth like no other leader in the hemisphere. He loves to make outlandish statements.

U.S. officials during the Bush administration tried to ignore him, figuring his bark was worse than his bite. But Chavez's popularity depends on having an adversary in the White House.

Make no mistake, Obama will have his hands full pulling the United States out of the diplomatic rut it's in with Venezuela.

Losing Bush as target for vitriol, Chavez aims at Obama 01/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 9:58pm]

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