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CÉSAR CHELALA

The reality that is Hugo Chávez

THE REELECTION OF President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela could be useful to the United States. Coming shortly after the election of Presidents Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Chávez's reelection may be the catalyst the United States needs to improve its policies with Latin America. The sweeping "pink tide" in Latin America, as some observers have called it, should accelerate a change in US policies toward its southern neighbors that takes into account their real needs and aspirations and leads to less violence and better relations in the hemisphere.

Chávez's clear victory Sunday was a striking rebuke to Washington's efforts to have him defeated. Although US officials have been irked by Chávez's dismissive rhetoric, the United States should move forward in assessing his accomplishments and shortcomings.

Chávez has used the windfall profits from oil to improve the fate of the Venezuelan poor. According to government figures, the number of Venezuelans living in poverty has fallen from 44 percent in 1998, the year before he took office, to 34 percent now. The government has conducted literacy campaigns all over the country and has considerably improved medical attention for the poorer segments for the population. Chávez was able to do that thanks to the help of over 16,000 Cuban doctors.

By subsidizing food, he also improved the nutritional status of the population. In addition, he has begun implementation of a land redistribution program. Through his "Zero Evasion Tax Plan" he has forced large corporations and landowners to pay significantly more taxes than they had to in the past.

However, at the same time that he has empowered the poor, he has alienated the middle- and upper classes with unnecessary confrontational rhetoric. He has widened the gap in Venezuelan society between the rich and the poor. He has sought to extend his political influence to other countries. In many cases, he has done that to the detriment of his political candidates, who were rebuffed in national elections, as happened in Mexico and Peru.

He has also become increasingly confrontational, and leaders of his party have made clear their intention to modify the constitution to assure him a continuing grip on power, which could hinder the democratic process in the country.

Chávez's actions have won him the wrath of the Bush administration. He accuses Washington of meddling in Venezuelan politics and of trying to overthrow him, as happened before in the failed coup d'etat in 2002. He also accuses the United States of undermining his government through its support of Venezuelan opposition parties.

Paradoxically, there is a symbiotic relationship between Chávez and the United States. They cannot live together but they cannot live without each other. Today, 60 percent of Venezuela's oil exports go to the United States, representing 11 percent of US oil imports. Much of the export is heavy crude oil, which is more expensive to process, and the United States is one of the few countries with the appropriate processing facilities. Rather than insisting on their differences, a road to nowhere, the United States should find ways of cooperating with the Chávez regime as a way of diminishing unnecessary tensions between both countries.

Chávez still faces serious challenges for development in Venezuela. The country needs substantial improvements in its infrastructure and healthcare. It needs to improve the condition of the poor and make many of its social programs sustainable. It also needs to control corruption and increasing levels of crime, one of the main concerns of Venezuelans. These are all areas where the United States can help. Latin American leaders are eager for an improvement in their relationship with the United States. At the same time, Latin America is the natural ally of the United States. . To continue a policy of confrontation -- which both the United States and Venezuela are fueling -- would be to lose a valuable opportunity to benefit both countries.

César Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, writes about foreign affairs and human rights issues.

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