WASHINGTON – U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela President Hugo Chávez hasn't found a consistent voice,according to experts who also warned that parliamentary election results could trigger more radicalization of Chávez's socialist project.
More than two-thirds of eligible Venezuelans voted Sept. 27 – 11.8 million people – to choose representatives to the National Assembly.
The alliance of opposition parties to Chávez's candidates won a third of the seats,depriving the government's candidates of the two-thirds majority they held since 2005,necessary for passing constitutional changes and other important legislation.
After the election,Chavez's party holds 98 of 165 seats,the opposition holds 65 and a third party of former Chavez supporters holds the remaining two seats.
“The United States needs to find a voice that's firm,clear and consistent that doesn't fall to Chávez's provocations,” Michael Shifter,president of Inter-American Dialogue,said.
He spoke at a Capitol Hill briefing Thursday.
The U.S. imports 8 percent of its oil from Venezuela. Despite Chávez's anti-imperialistic rhetoric and efforts to forge alliances with China,Iran and Russia,the U.S. remains Venezuela's main commercial partner.
The U.S. should continue to pay attention to “democracy deterioration” in Venezuela,Shifter said. He said he doubts that Chávez will become “more accommodating,pragmatic toward the opposition.”
Colombian insurgent groups trespassing in Venezuela have eroded confidence between the two Andean governments. Diplomatic links are in good shape,but border security will remain a destabilizing source in the region,Shifter said. He added that the U.S. should work with the Colombian government,Washington's closest ally in South America,to prevent further escalation of diplomatic rows.
Chávez could draw back from his international activism after losing absolute control of the National Assembly,Shifter said. He added that Chávez would be more interested in recovering a popular majority for assuring his re-election in the 2012 presidential elections. However Venezuela's alliances with conspicuous U.S. rivals such as Iran,Syria or Belarus,should concern the U.S. agenda with Venezuela,Shifter said.
Kirk Hawkins,a professor of political science at Brigham Young University,witnessed the Venezuelan elections. He said that the voting overall was a clean process,with high voter turnout,which meant a significant victory for Chávez's political opposition.
He said 30 percent of the population elected more than 50 percent of the National Assembly.
Hawkins said it is unlikely Chávez will change his radicalization course.
“Thus,I believe Chávez will take few days or months to come out with a bold move that again puts his opposition on the defensive,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins defends an assertive U.S. engagement with Chávez. “We have to do better than just ignoring him,” he said,adding that U.S. officials should “treat Chavez with respect and acknowledge the democratic intentions he feels that he exposes.”
Hawkins said the U.S. could restore normalcy to its relationship with Venezuela by avoiding dictating policy changes to Venezuela. “Harsh criticism will reinforce Chávez's view that the U.S. is conspiring against him,” Hawkins said.
Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S. Bernardo Álvarez,said Friday that Chávez's confrontational style is a reaction to the opposition efforts to destabilize his government. He spoke as part of a panel discussion at the Open Society Institute.
Álvarez said he is optimistic that the new representatives to the National Assembly could restore political debate in making legislation.
“The new assembly will bring a new opportunity for dialogue. The opposition entered to the political game,which is more flexible than their strategy of removing Chávez from the presidency,” Álvarez said.