Leading article: Mr Chavez has reason to suspect the US

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That said, however, the reason Mr Robertson's outburst drew so much attention was that it came in a context which lent it a certain plausibility. Take, first, the former television evangelist's exact formulation: "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability." Put like that, this is not a million miles from the sort of thing President Bush used to say about Saddam Hussein, and we know what happened in Iraq.

Take, then, Mr Bush's reliance for both his election victories on evangelical groups, such as the Christian Coalition. Take, too, Mr Robertson's links with the White House, and we could interpret his remarks as kite-flying. We doubt this was the intent - we doubt, in fact, that there was any intent beyond a desire to provoke controversy - but it cannot be ruled out. Mr Bush is widely thought to have form in this area. Three years ago, Hugo Chavez accused the CIA of being behind a coup that briefly toppled him. The refusal of the White House to condemn the coup at the time, and its barely concealed disappointment when it failed, seemed to support Mr Chavez's contention.

Last, but not least, take the Venezuelan president's record. Mr Chavez has spurned the advice of the free-market IMF and embarked on egalitarian reforms, including land redistribution. He has accused American drug enforcement agents of doubling as spies, revoked their diplomatic immunity and threatened to halt oil exports to the US. He has created a new military reserve to deter "aggression" against his country, and he is leading an initiative to supply cut-price oil to the Caribbean countries in what the US sees as a move to buy influence in the region. When the current "assassination" row broke out, Mr Chavez was visiting Fidel Castro in Cuba.

None of this makes the Venezuelan president likely to become Mr Bush's favourite Latin American very soon. The accusations and denials now flying between Caracas and Washington only go to show how deep the suspicion of US motives runs in Venezuela, what a heavy historical burden the US has accumulated in Latin America, and how hard this and subsequent US presidents will have to work if they want reliable allies in the region.