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State Department figure gave green light to Caracas. The current administration’s policy on Venezuela was designed by John Maisto, U.S. ambassador to the country under President Clinton and director for hemispheric affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.  It amounts to: “Watch what they do, not what they say.” But the key to understanding the Venezuelan government and the threat it represents for the region is to understand that it means what it says — and it says what it means. The fact that there may be a time lag between a revolutionary statement and corresponding action by the Venezuelan governmental provides poor justification for ignoring the march to autocracy in Venezuela.

Venezuela is unlike other leftist governments in region. The Venezuelan strongman’s conduct has now become an international issue. Were it merely a matter of socialist or populist domestic policies and anti-U.S. rhetoric – a staple of Latin American politics for three generations – Washington might be able to get away with conducting business as it has (and does) with so many other countries in the region. But Venezuela stands in stark contrast to the leftist leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay.  While there are reasons for concerns about these leaders’ own residual extremism, they have not, to date, behaved like dictators committed to exporting revolution.

Destabilization of other democracies. The Venezuelan government has extensive funding ties to destabilizing forces in Bolivia,Colombia,Ecuador, and Nicaragua, countries teetering on the edge of political and social turmoil, or worse.Venezuela’s instruments include lawless guerilla organizations fomenting volatility and legitimized revolutionary organizations that sloganeer democracy and seek power through the ballot box.  The Venezuelan government wishes to attain electoral victories in order to pursue the Bolivarian model of control in each of these countries.

During the 1980s, Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union fomented guerrilla wars in Central America. President Ronald Reagan and his very able foreign policy team stopped them. The strife in Central America, however, had important repercussions. Millions of people were displaced. Nearly one million Central Americans immigrated into the United States in search of safety, and even today, the economic consequences of grinding poverty and the failed left-wing movements of the 1980s continue to push hundreds of thousands of Central Americans to seek entry into the United States through legal and illegal means.

$50 billion in annual oil revenue can finance a lot of trouble.  In 2004, Venezuela was the United States’ sixteenth-largest trading partner with $50 billion in yearly hard currency income.  That is more than the combined yearly incomes of all of Central America during the 1980s crises. Further, the population of the countries that form the fallout zones of Venezuela’s projected instability exceeds 100 million.Venezuela has more energy resources than Iraq and supplies one-fifth of American oil consumption. Given its vast resources and investments in exporting revolution, if Venezuela succeeds with its plans the Central American instability of two decades ago will seem modest in comparison.

U.S. asset: Goodwill of Venezuelan people. The lack of a coherent U.S. policy towards Venezuela is profoundly frustrating given that, unlike the Venezuelan government and its paid supporters, the majority of Venezuelans have great affection for America and its freedoms. Data obtained from the Pew Research Center surveys on “Global Attitudes” indicate that, although much of the world—and nearly all of Latin America—resents and mistrusts the United States, the population of Venezuela ranks among the greatest global admirers of the United States and its people. The Venezuelan government knows this and is funding numerous “educational” programs to shift affinity away from the United States.

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