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Hugo Chavez versus George W. Bush. It sounds at first like something from Gilbert and Sullivan — one of them rolling along, seemingly unstoppable, toward the mantle of president for life, the other flailing his way toward the final curtain, anxious, before it’s too late, to make good on his early promise to look south for friends and vital interests. But Chavez goes on railing against imperialism and the drive toward a Latin American empire by the United States.

Of course the problem is there’s been no such drive at all, toward anything, in Latin America during the past six years. Bush had hoped for better. Mexico, after all, was a part of the world he understood before his move to the White House. On migration he’s been far-sighted and sensible.  But his own Republican party beat him back on that, and September 11, with the wars that followed, finished off any further effort to concentrate the mind of Washington on the states below our border.

We’ve left the way open to a cunning, beefy, thug-ish heir of Juan Perón  who survived a coup, a recall referendum and the disdain of our State Department to convert his Bolivarian revolution into a call for 21st Century Socialism that involves oil deals with China, cozy confabs with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and mischief in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Bush is doing his best to spread conservative compassion in Latin America and the Caribbean, offering modest assistance, including a Navel ship that will stop in the ports of eleven poor countries to give medical treatment to 85,000 people. But some see it as a trifling gesture. According the Financial Times, one commentator in Brazil called it “more in keeping with the 1940s.”     

Is there a better way to cope with Hugo Chavez? Yes, says Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Here is what he urges:

     (1.) Take President Chavez seriously. He acts like a buffoon, but he’s ambitious and he’s sitting on barrels, or rather, tons of oil.

     (2.) Don’t try to get rid of Chavez except at the ballot box. Our premature enthusiasm for the aborted coup against him in 2002 did us no good.

     (3.) Don’t press friendly governments in Latin America to oppose Chavez openly. They can’t.

     (4.) When Chavez goes off-track sabotaging the courts and throwing away the license of Radio Caracus TV, complain forcefully, through the Organization of American States.

     (5.) Focus on Brazil and Chili, Colombia and Peru, who are allies, but make clear to troublesome presidents in Bolivia and Ecuador that our door also is open to them.

     (6.) Do not give our backing to partisan groups. Support only organizations designed to advance civil society.   

     (7.) Reduce our dependence on Venezuelan oil, since Chavez prefers China as a customer. Bush’s ethanol initiative with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva is a good beginning on this front. It would be even better if Congress would lower the 54-cents-a-gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol.

     (8.) Show restraint in dealing with Chavez. This the president has done, admirably. With the application of patience, greater generosity, and diplomatic pressure where necessary, much can be done to play for time, while Hugo Chavez, overdoes it. This is an eventuality on which we can rely.