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Originally published July 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 2, 2009 at 8:40 AM

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Obama outmaneuvers Chávez over Honduras

From the moment the coup in Honduras unfolded over the weekend, President Hugo Chávez had his playbook ready. He said the U.S.' hands were all over...

The New York Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — From the moment the coup in Honduras unfolded over the weekend, President Hugo Chávez had his playbook ready. He said the U.S.' hands were all over the ouster, claiming that it financed President Manuel Zelaya's opponents and insinuating that the CIA may have led a disinformation campaign to bolster the putschists.

But President Obama firmly condemned the coup, defusing Chávez's charges. Instead of engaging in tit-for-tat accusations, Obama calmly described the coup as "illegal" and called for Zelaya's return to office. While Chávez continued to portray the U.S. as the coup's aggressor, others in Latin America failed to see it that way.

In recent years, Chávez exploited the Bush administration's low standing after the Iraq war and its tacit approval for the brief coup that toppled him in 2002, and blamed the U.S. for ills in Venezuela and across the region. Now such tactics may get less traction, as the Obama administration presses for a multilateral solution to the crisis in Honduras by turning to the Organization of American States. In doing so, Obama is moving away from policies that had isolated the United States in parts of the hemisphere.

Honduras, which has long had close ties to the U.S., has more recently emerged as a proxy for the interests of both Venezuela and the United States. With subsidized oil, Chávez lured Honduras into his leftist alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Meanwhile, the United States did not cut off development and military aid to Honduras, in an attempt to maintain influence there.

But while Chávez has allies in Bolivia and Ecuador who succeeded in changing constitutions to stay in office longer — following his example in Venezuela — his intervention in Honduras heightened tension in that country. Reports that Venezuela sent a plane to Honduras last week with election material for a referendum at the heart of Zelaya's clash with the Supreme Court stirred considerable unease there.

Chávez portrays his support for Zelaya as another example of championing his brand of democracy, which can center on strong presidencies at the expense of other branches of government. But some countries in Latin America are resisting the trend of allowing leaders to extend their stay.

In Colombia, for instance, President Álvaro Uribe, a conservative populist and an American ally, is facing difficulties in a push to allow him to run for a third term. And in Argentina, the once popular former president, Néstor Kirchner, admitted defeat this week in congressional elections, throwing into doubt hopes for him and his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to extend their dynasty in the next presidential election.

Meanwhile, Obama is seeking to engage Brazil more deeply, reportedly floating the appointment of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's leftist president, as head of the World Bank. The move would break the tradition of nominating an American to the post and could bolster support for Washington-based multilateral institutions while blunting Chávez's attempts to use oil proceeds to create his own rival institutions.

Moreover, Chávez's anti-establishment rhetoric, aimed at elites in Washington and elsewhere, still resounds among many people here in Venezuela and in Latin America.

But for now, at least, Obama's nonconfrontational diplomacy seems to have caught Chávez off balance. "Chávez is beginning to understand that he's dealing with someone with a very different approach than his predecessor," said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy research group.

Chávez's threats of belligerence in Central America led one opposition party here, Acción Democrática, to issue a statement on Monday that was full of irony: "Hugo Chávez has become the George Bush of Latin America."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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