Editorial: Respect Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez charged Sept. 13 that the Bush administration was trying to interfere with his participation in the UN’s 60th Anniversary Summit session by denying visas to his security and medical teams.

Referring to last month’s statement by far-right televangelist Pat Robertson that the U.S. should go ahead and assassinate him, Chavez said, “They threaten to kill me from there and then deny visas to my closest security team who have been with me for years, they deny my medical team their visas, I’m going to have to walk around the Big Apple by myself.”

By itself, denying entry to the support team of a head of state coming to the United Nations is a striking example of undiplomatic nastiness, unbecoming to the host of the world’s principal international organization. But viewed together with the Bush administration’s increasingly strident opposition to Venezuela’s independent course under Chavez, and its non-response to Robertson’s threat, the denial takes on more ominous overtones.

“If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it,” Robertson — a strong Bush backer — said Aug. 22 over his Christian Broadcasting Network. “It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.”

Afterwards, the White House said nothing, the State Department called the remark “inappropriate,” and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “Certainly, it’s against the law,” but added, “Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time.”

The Bush administration’s response also contrasts with Venezuela’s own approach to relations with the United States. After Hurricane Katrina, Venezuela offered mobile hospitals, rescue and first aid experts, water purification and power generation plants, and food — only to have its offer summarily rejected.

Instead of petty-minded and potentially lethal diplomatic gamesmanship, Washington should be doing its utmost to build normal relations with a near neighbor now taking a prominent role in regional affairs. The Bush administration also needs to rethink the way it conducts itself as host to the world’s greatest international organization, the United Nations.