Hugo Chavez went on national television to dare Barack Obama to cut diplomatic relations with Venezuela after Chavez rejected Obama’s choice to replace Ambassador Patrick Duddy, who left in July. Chavez objected to comments made by nominee Larry Palmer that suggested that Chavez was sheltering Colombian rebels and Palmer’s criticism of the actions of the legislature, which gave Chavez 18 months of rule by decree in order to ignore the new National Assembly taking office next month, one with enough opposition to block Chavez’ proposals:
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dared the United States to expel his ambassador or cut off diplomatic ties in retaliation for his rejection of Washington’s choice for ambassador to Caracas.
Tensions have been growing over Chavez’s refusal to accept American diplomat Larry Palmer and also over U.S. criticisms of a legislative offensive by the president’s congressional allies. Lawmakers have granted Chavez expanded powers to enact laws by decree for the next year and a half, a change that opponents condemn as antidemocratic.
Chavez has said he will not accept Palmer to be ambassador due to comments he made earlier this year suggesting that morale is low in Venezuela’s military and that he is concerned Colombian rebels are finding refuge in Venezuela. …
“If the government is going to expel our ambassador there, let them do it!,” Chavez said in a televised speech Tuesday night. “If they’re going to cut diplomatic relations, let them do it!”
“Now the U.S. government is threatening us that they’re going to take reprisals. Well, let them do whatever they want, but that man will not come,” Chavez said.
The Senate may be in position to defuse the standoff, if Harry Reid is inclined to do so. Palmer has yet to be confirmed. Obama could still insist that he will not back down from his nominee, putting the Senate in position to decline his confirmation due to the negative reception Palmer has received in the host country. That would allow Obama to save some face while maintaining diplomatic relations with Venezuela.
Overall, though, the situation has become a mild embarrassment for Obama. During the presidential campaign, Obama insisted that he could change the nature of the relationship between the US and Venezuela by personally meeting “without preconditions” with Chavez, along with other tinpot dictators and lunatics like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-il, among others. It came as a piece from his insistence that George Bush had done serious damage to relations with allies and foes alike due to a lack of engagement, and that his “smart power” would restore that standing and dial down tensions around the world.
While Obama has never had the private meeting with Chavez that he pledged, he did get some face time with the Venezuelan strongman at the 2009 OAS meeting almost immediately after taking office. A few months later, Obama sided with Chavez and the Castro brothers in Cuba during the Honduran crisis, in which former president Manuel Zelaya was arrested and then deported for preparing a Chavez-like grab at lifetime power. None of this improved Chavez’ outlook on the US, nor did it turn Chavez away from his military partnership with Iran, which continues apace.
After this season of appeasement, Obama finds himself in the position of having even worse diplomatic relations with Venezuela than the Bush administration did, with Chavez daring him to cut ties or retreat on his choice of ambassador. Those, unfortunately, have always been the wages of appeasement with petty dictators.