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What the US can do as Venezuela teeters

Whichever course of action Bush chooses to head off more violence, others are ready to criticize.

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As Venezuela, the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States, sinks deeper into political chaos, the US has a key role to play in avoiding a second civil conflict on its back doorstep.

But it's still dragging baggage from its long history of interventionism in Latin America. It's also smarting from its bumbling reaction to Venezuela's upheaval earlier this year, when it rushed to bestow approval on the short-lived ouster of President Hugo Chávez.

Focused on Iraq and the war on terrorism, the US looked unprepared for Venezuela's crisis in waiting. It was caught short by a lack of attention to the region, as well as hampered by vestiges of the decades of US policy that treated Latin America like a personal domain.

As one State Department official says, the US still suffers from a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" reaction when acting on crises in Latin America. High- profile involvement can raise wails of protest from critics who say the "Yanqui" reflex to treat southern neighbors like unruly children is alive and well. On the other hand, a disengaged US can also find itself accused of something akin to parental neglect. That's where American officials see the US pegged today, as critics lambaste the Bush administration - which came into office touting Latin America as a top priority - for turning its back on the southern Americas.

"The US has not found its comfort level in how proactive it can be as the good neighbor," says Miguel Díaz, director of the South America Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "There's still an awkwardness because of historical issues that leaves us not really sure-footed in engaging with the region."

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