As President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela veers toward greater confrontation with Washington, the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government, American officials say.
The Bush administration has already begun to urge Venezuela's neighbors to distance themselves from Mr. Chávez and to raise concerns about press freedoms, judicial independence and the Venezuelan government's affinity for leftist groups abroad, including Colombian guerrillas.
But it has found no allies so far in its attempts to isolate the Venezuelan leader, and it has grown more and more frustrated by Mr. Chávez's strident anti-American outbursts and policies that seem intended to fly in the face of Washington. On Sunday, Mr. Chávez ended a 35-year military cooperation agreement and ordered out four American military instructors he accused of fomenting unrest.
The accusation, which American officials denied, was the latest blow to relations that had been bitter since the United States tacitly supported a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chávez in April 2002. Since then his strength has grown. He won a recall election last August, and record high oil prices have left his government flush with money as it provides 15 percent of American oil imports.
American officials, who had chosen to ignore Mr. Chávez through much of last year, now recognize the need for a longer-term strategy to deal with a leader who is poised to win a second six-year term in elections next year.
A multiagency task force in Washington has been working on shaping a new approach, one that high-ranking American policy makers say would most likely veer toward a harder line. United States support for groups that Chávez supporters say oppose the government has been a source of tension in the past. Under the plans being considered, American officials said, that support may increase.
"The conclusion that is increasingly being drawn in Washington is that a realistic, pragmatic relationship, in which we can agree to disagree on some issues but make progress on others, does not seem to be in the cards," said an American official who helps guide policy in Latin America.
The official added, "We offered them a more pragmatic relationship, but obviously if they do not want it, we can move to a more confrontational approach."
Already counternarcotics programs have suffered, American officials noted, and meetings among high-ranking officials from the two countries are minimal.
"What's happening here is they realize this thing is deteriorating rapidly and it's going to require some more attention," said a high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill who works on Latin America policy. "The current look-the-other-way policy is not working."
The United States, he said, is particularly concerned because Venezuela is one of four top providers of foreign oil to the United States. "You can't write him off," the aide said of Mr. Chávez. "He's sitting on an energy source that's critical to us."
A main problem for the United States is that Washington has little, if any, influence over Caracas. The high price of oil has left Venezuela with no need for the loans or other aid that the United States could use as leverage.
Nor does the Bush administration have much support in Latin America, where left-leaning leaders now govern two-thirds of the continent. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to raise concerns about Venezuela in a four-country tour through the region this week. Political analysts say she will have a hard time finding support.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a recent trip to Brazil, publicly raised concerns about Mr. Chávez. Days later, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, in a meeting in Venezuela with Mr. Chávez and the leaders of Colombia and Argentina, pointedly said, "We don't accept defamation and insinuations against a compańero," meaning a close friend.
"Venezuela has the right to be a sovereign country, to make its own decisions," he added.
For his part, Mr. Chávez, who is famous for his rambling, often outrageous speeches, has grown more belligerent, using his anti-American posturing to bolster his popular support. He has accused the United States of planning an invasion, prompting a threat to cut oil sales, and has hurled sexually tinged insults at Secretary Rice.
While other Venezuelan officials stress that oil sales to the United States would never cease, Venezuela's new energy ties with China have worried Washington, as did Mr. Chávez's recent meeting with President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, which he declared "has every right" to develop its atomic energy program.
Mr. Chávez is also forming a popular militia that he says will eventually have two million members and has plans to buy 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia and fighter jets from Brazil.
"All governments recognize the democratic character of the Venezuelan government, its peaceful vocation, and they want to establish relations with Venezuela, with just one exception, the United States," Alí Rodríguez, the Venezuelan foreign minister, said in an interview. "It has gone to great lengths to isolate Venezuela, but no government is playing along. It has failed, and that's because there is no reason to isolate Venezuela."
Indeed, many of Latin America's largest countries see little benefit in colliding with Mr. Chávez, nor do they support the isolation of Cuba. Venezuela provides oil at below-market prices and has numerous lucrative economic agreements with dozens of nations. Many also do not want to antagonize their own leftist constituencies, who are partial to Mr. Chávez.
"The other countries don't want to be drawn into a polemic between Venezuela and the United States," said Jennifer L. McCoy, a Venezuela expert at Georgia State University who headed the Carter Center's election observer mission in Caracas last year. "It's a counterproductive strategy that could result in a negative Latin American reaction if they're forced to take sides."
Many influential Democrats in Congress also oppose a more aggressive approach.
"I think it creates further estrangement," said Representative Bill Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the House International Relations Committee who has met many times with Mr. Chávez. "One cannot get around the fact that Hugo Chávez is a democratically elected president."
But Bush administration policy planners say that efforts to patch up relations with Venezuela have largely failed.
The American ambassador, William Brownfield, who took over in Caracas in September, spent fruitless months before getting a meeting with Mr. Rodríguez. Requests for meetings with other ministers and even midlevel officials are routinely ignored, and Venezuela has canceled dozens of routine exchange programs with the United States.
The one option that administration officials increasingly believe they have is to respond much more assertively and publicly to Venezuelan policies the United States does not like, ideally with the help of other countries and respected institutions like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
"We shouldn't be afraid to say when he's taking away liberties, not at all," Robert B. Zoellick, now the deputy secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February.
Venezuelan Foreign Ministry officials say they still hold out hope that relations will improve. "There is one condition for us to have healthy relations with the United States," said Vice Minister Mari Pili Hernández, who handles relations with Washington. "It's called respect."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company