by Humberto Marquez
(IPS) CARACAS -- Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez repeated Feb. 18 his angry accusations at his George W. Bush, but Washington is not likely to react to this "wave of the red cape," agree political analysts.
Chavez accused the Bush government Tuesday of backing the coup that removed him from power for two days in April 2002, and blamed Washington for the deaths that occurred amidst the protests at that time. On Wednesday he demanded that the United States "keep its nose out of Venezuela."
On both occasions, Chavez addressed Venezuelans -- via radio and television -- from auditoriums filled with his supporters, saying that most of the millions of signatures collected by the opposition for a presidential recall referendum are not valid.
He charged that "members of the U.S. military coordinated with Venezuelan military officers" in the 2002 coup, and "they sent warships to the Caribbean to stalk Venezuela."
Washington "continues to support opposition groups by giving them large amounts of money," said Chavez.
U.S. Deputy Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Peter DeShazo, said Monday in Caracas that Washington has "supported groups identified with the government and groups that are not. Both sides have received funds."
Chavez accused DeShazo of "lying shamelessly."
"The Bolivarian forces -- Chavez supporters -- would feel offended in receiving even a single cent of a dollar" from the U.S. government, he said.
These statements "are a trap that Chavez is setting to provoke an international reaction and to shift attention away from the recall referendum," says Carlos Romero, an international affairs expert and a supporter of the opposition.
"But it is unlikely that Washington will charge that red cape," he told IPS.
According to Romero, the United States will first wait for the decision of Venezuela's National Electoral Council (CNE) about whether the opposition gathered enough valid signatures for a recall referendum on the Chavez presidency. The CNE is to announce its decision by the end of the month.
And then the decision will be evaluated by the ad hoc "Group of Friends" -- Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and United States -- that are tracking the Venezuelan political situation.
The State Department responded to questions about Chavez's statements Wednesday during its daily press briefing in Washington, but kept the tone low-key. "It's not the first time he has made accusations, but I have to say, they're not serious ones," said spokesman Richard Boucher.
"From time to time" Chavez has used such arguments "to divert attention away from the efforts that are underway amongst the Venezuelan people to exercise their constitutional rights and try to resolve the political polarization through a constitutional process," Boucher said.
Asked if the president's comments would impede the U.S. role as a member of the Group of Friends in helping to resolve the Venezuelan political crisis, Boucher responded "no."
"Our goal is to see that the constitutional rights of signatories to the petitions for the recall referendum are respected... There are decisions that have to be made by the Electoral Council. We hope those decisions are made fairly and honestly."
Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said that DeShazo had indicated in their Monday meeting that the United States would be guided by the conclusions of the observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the U.S.-based Carter Center for Peace about the potential referendum.
Rangel and the head of the Chavez campaign, Ismael García, condemned the Washington stance, arguing that only the CNE would be recognized as a sovereign arbiter in Venezuela's political affairs.
Chavez "has launched an accusation out of context -- one that he could have made in 2002, or later, to the multilateral institutions -- and is using it to try to take advantage of the fact that this is a difficult year for Bush, who is not doing well in the electoral or economic areas," Franklin Molina, head of international studies at Venezuela's Central University, told IPS.
Molina was referring to the public deficit of the U.S. economy -- mostly the result of increased military spending and lowered taxes -- and the decline in Bush's popularity ratings, with the presidential elections looming in November.
While DeShazo's statements reflect "interference that deserved a response," Chavez "overreacted by taking them as an aggression," says Alberto Muller, a political science professor and retired general who in 1998 led the campaign that put Chavez in the presidency.
"The most likely scenario is that there will be no formal reaction" from Washington to Chavez's statements, "because Latin America is on the margin of U.S. interests, which are concentrated on problems in other latitudes, like the Middle East and North Korea," Muller told IPS.
According to Molina, "The Bush administration sees Chavez as a man put in power by democracy, who in this electoral year they can touch, but not move much, because he is standing over a goldmine of petroleum."
Venezuela is one of the four major suppliers of oil to the United States, sending 1.5 million barrels a day.
Oil industry expert Víctor Poleo, of the leftist group Soberanía (Sovereignty), believes it is possible that Washington could try to destabilise Chavez, "to the extent that the United States does not have a unified government, because it acts through many different agencies. But the "petroleum board" is happy with the Venezuelan government."
This petroleum board, Poleo told IPS, is made up of U.S. officials who previously held executive positions in the oil industry, such as Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Chavez has given everything" to those interests, ranging from secure oil supplies to new business opportunities for crude and natural gas exploitation, he said.
On the political side, "what the United States does is insist on compliance with Resolution 833 of the OAS, which called on Venezuela in 2002 to find a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral resolution to its political crisis, and the May 2003 accord," said international affairs expert Romero.
That accord, negotiated under the mediation of OAS secretary general Cesar Gaviria between representatives of the government and the opposition, laid the groundwork for the recall referendum, a mechanism stipulated in the 1999 constitution that Chavez himself promoted.
This mechanism allows the electorate to recall publicly elected officials when they reach the halfway point in their terms in office.
In the case of Chavez, in order for the CNE to convene a referendum, 2.4 million people -- 20 percent of the electorate -- needed to sign a petition. The opposition movement claims it collected 3.4 million signatures.
The CNE is in the process of determining the validity of the signatures.
In January, Bush said during a meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox that the United States would work with the OAS to ensure the integrity of the recall referendum process in Venezuela.
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