In an infamous and vulgar U.N. speech delivered in September 2006, Venezuela’s populist authoritarian President Hugo Chavez likened President George W. Bush to “the devil.”
On December 20, Chavez lashed out at President Barack Obama after the U.S. President opined on the worsening situation in Venezuela. “Mr. Obama decided to attack us,” Chavez cried. “Now you want to win votes by attacking Venezuela. Don’t be irresponsible. You are a clown, a clown. Leave us in peace.” Chavez added that he considered President Obama to be an “embarrassment.”
Chavez’s outburst followed publication in Venezuela’s El Universal of lengthy responses to written questions posed to Obama. And while the answers provided did not vary greatly from earlier White House statements, they nonetheless highlighted deeper concern about the threats posed by Iran’s entry into the Americas and the continued deterioration of democratic governance in our region. President Obama’s responses reflect a modest stiffening of tone (without action) long encouraged by congressional critics as well as by experienced diplomats and national security experts.
President Obama spoke about the role of ideology, Iran, and democracy. He noted that relations with Chavez and his allies are influenced by their anti-America, anti-free market, and authoritarian styles of governing. “Most people in the Americas,” observed Obama, “are tired of refighting old ideological battles because it doesn’t do anything to help their daily lives.”
On Iran and Venezuela, the President warned:
Utimately, it is up to the Venezuelan people to determine what they gain from a relationship with a country that violates universal human rights and is isolated from much of the world. The Iranian government has consistently supported international terrorism that has killed innocent men, women, and children around the world—including in the Americas. It has brutally suppressed the Iranian people simply for demanding their universal rights. And Tehran continues to pursue a nuclear program that threatens the security of the Middle East. Here in the Americas, we take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously and we will continue to monitor them closely.
Finally, President Obama shared his concerns about democracy in Venezuela.
We must also speak out when we see democratic principles threatened. In Venezuela, we have been deeply concerned to see action taken to restrict the freedom of the press, and to erode the separation of powers that is necessary for democracy to thrive. In all countries of the region, we want to see elections that are free and fair.
At least the White House is now on the record about developments in Venezuela that are considered detrimental to the political, economic, and security interests of the U.S. It is hoped that the President’s readiness to speak on the topic will be followed by concrete actions in 2012, which could range from support for Venezuela’s democratic opposition to placing Venezuela on the state sponsors of terrorism list.