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Venezuela's Foreign Policy
Defiance south of the border
Typically, State Department officials grit their teeth when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez challenges U.S. foreign policy, but occasionally he provokes a sharper reaction. For example, in August Chávez was the first Western nation head of state to visit Iraq since the U.N.-imposed boycott went into effect ten years ago. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher called the trip “irritating” and “a bad idea.” Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel retorted by labeling the U.S. attitude “hypocrisy.” He added that in the past the U.S. government maintained cordial relations with both military and communist regimes, and so “why can't we do the same?” In a nation-wide broadcast the day after he returned, Chávez mocked Boucher's statements suggesting the use of body cream “to alleviate the irritation.”
This was not the first time that a State Department official lost his/her patience and disregarded Washington's official policy of restraint toward Chávez. Earlier this year, Under Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Peter Romero told Spanish reporters: “In Venezuela, you don't see a government in charge—only plebiscites, referendums and more elections. They tell us ‘wait,' but we gringos are not exactly known for our patience.”
Actually, Romero had reason to be irked. Chávez had just snubbed a U.S. offer to send marine corps engineers and bulldozers to repair the highway connecting Caracas with coastal areas devastated by heavy flooding on December 15, 1999. Chávez feared that the sheer number of U.S. military personnel reaching as many as 1,000 would set a dangerous precedent. In previous weeks, U.S. ambassador John Maisto had assured the State Department that the plan for aid would win Chávez over to closer relations with the U.S. In the aftermath of the rebuff, Maisto's strategy seemed ingenuous. Indeed, if Chávez is under the sway of anyone, it is foreign minister Rangel, three-time socialist presidential candidate whose nationalistic sentiment has not dimmed over the years.
In spite of the radical thrust of his movement—as embodied in the nation's new constitution, which went into effect this year—Chávez has carefully eschewed anti-U.S. rhetoric. Instead, Chávez, like Peru's Alberto Fujimori, lashes out at the nation's traditional political parties, which he holds responsible for the nation's social and economic woes. In another similarity with Fujimori, Chávez relies heavily on military officers who are well placed in his government and party. Chávez was a middle-level officer who led an abortive coup against the corruption-ridden government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in February 1992.
Chávez's opposition to sanctions against Peru following the allegedly fraudulent elections of May 28 reinforced the comparisons with Fujimori in the U.S. press (in spite of basic policy differences between the two leaders) and at the same time further irritated Washington. Venezuela, along with Mexico, played an activist role in blocking U.S. efforts in the OAS to impose hemispheric sanctions on Peru. Chávez then attended the summit of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) in Lima, hosted by Fujimori. In an indirect reference to U.S. proposed actions against Fujimori, Chávez declared: “Rather than accepting the imposition of models and economic policies, what we should do is march in the direction of a system of international relations based on equality and mutual respect.”
From Overt U.S. Hostility To Restraint
The U.S. attitude toward Chávez at the beginning of his political career was hardly indulgent. Following Chávez's decision to run for the presidency in the 1998 elections, the State Department turned down his request for a visa to allow him to explain his platform to multinational representatives in New York and Washington. Madeleine Albright pointed out that according to U.S. law Chávez was ineligible due to his participation in the 1992 coup. She failed to mention, however, that the U.S. did grant a visa to the number two-man in the coup attempt, Francisco Arias Cárdenas. In one respect, U.S. flexibility paid off as the more tractable Arias broke with Chávez and was his main rival in special elections held on July 30. During the campaign, Arias criticized Chávez's defiant attitude toward the U.S. and his kind words for Cuba.
The rejection of Chávez's visa request boomeranged. Just after the request was denied, Chávez's popularity soared. The lesson was not lost on Ambassador Maisto: Chávez thrives on controversy and as any populist he creates an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy. The “them” included the pro-establishment parties, big business, the media, and even the Church. Maisto was intent on avoiding inclusion of the U.S. in the enemy camp.
At the time of Chávez's election in December 1998 and throughout his first year in office, Maisto used cogent arguments to swing over Romero and others in the State Department to his policy of cautiousness and wait-and-see. First, a hostile approach to Chávez was not recommended due to his widespread popularity. In contrast to Salvador Allende who had won with one-third of the vote, Chávez captured 56 percent in the presidential elections of 1998 and he did even better in three elections held last year and the one held on July 30. Second, Chávez's economic policy has yet to be clearly defined. What the State Department most appreciates is that, after pushing a proposed moratorium on the foreign debt as presidential candidate, Chávez has stayed within the bounds of the agreement with the IMF negotiated by his predecessor. Shortly prior to the July 30 elections, Chávez held foreign creditors responsible for subjugating third world nations to perpetual poverty, but added: “We are paying off the debt because we want to continue to interact with foreign lending agencies.”
Finally, some political analysts close to the State Department have pointed out that as a consequence of Chávez's electoral victories the nation's traditional parties have collapsed like a house of cards. One political scientist told the CIA at a closed meeting it helped organize titled “Forecasting Implications for Venezuela” outside of Miami last November, “For all his prankishness, Chávez is what separates Venezuela from political chaos.”
Of much greater concern to Washington than Chávez's rejection of aid following the December 15 calamity is his negative response to repeated U.S. requests for permission to use Venezuelan airspace to combat drug trafficking. Previous Venezuelan governments had unofficially authorized individual DEA-sponsored flights, a policy that was never publicly acknowledged. Following the U.S. departure from Panama's Howard Air Force Base, the Pentagon has developed plans to use airports in the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curazao off the Venezuelan coast to patrol the area. Last year anti-drug czar Barre McCaffrey met with Chávez in Caracas and informed him of the 18 flights from Colombia into Venezuelan airspace, which drug traffickers average per month, warning that the latter country risked becoming the “weak link” in the hemispheric war on drugs.
Carlos Romero, who left the Foreign Ministry last year and teaches diplomacy at the Central University explained Chávez's unbending position this way: “Chávez as an army officer does not understand the Pentagon's fixation on ‘electronic war,' fought from the air and observed on monitor screens, which was first put in evidence in the Persian Gulf conflict. This is why he fails to take the U.S. request all that seriously.”
Actually, another explanation goes a long way in accounting for Chávez's attitude. One of the issues that lurked behind the February 1992 coup was the fear among military officers that the armed forces in Latin America could be virtually phased out as an institution due to dramatic international changes such as “globalism,” the end of the Cold War, and shifting U.S. priorities. In the face of the breakdown of barriers among nations in this “postmodern” world, the military's hitherto sacred mission of defense of national security would seem to have lost its relevance.
Since Reagan's second administration U.S. preference for democracy abroad, and its resultant distrust of the military in third world countries, has been more evident than in the past. The perception that the U.S. is no longer interested in the traditional model of the armed forces is reinforced by the decline in U.S. military aid to Latin America (with the exception of Colombia) over the last decade. Some U.S. government officials feel that Latin American armed forces, rather than defend borders, should take charge of combating crime and specifically the drug trade in all its phases. In the case of Venezuela, they consider the police force irreparably corrupt and thus unable to perform these tasks adequately .
The military officers who participated in the February 1992 coup and another revolt ten months later fervently defend the military's traditional role as guardians of national security. Nationalist sentiment underpins their arguments: With the foreign take-over of strategic industries through privatization, widespread corruption, and total government incompetence, what is at stake is not only national security but the broader issue of national sovereignty. Rear Admiral Hernán Gruber Odremán, who led the second coup in 1992, has written extensively in the press about the new role which politicians backed by the U.S. are allegedly thrusting on the Venezuelan armed forces. For the military, patrolling streets is nothing less than “an offense to national honor.” Gruber adds: “The apparent fate of our armed forces recalls what happened to its counterpart in Panama,” which was completely dismantled following the U.S. invasion in 1989.
Gruber, who President Chávez named governor of the Federal District, told me in his office: “The United States can not expect the Venezuelan military to commit suicide by renouncing its commitment to defending national integrity. In fact, that function is plainly spelled out in our new constitution. I sometimes ask myself whether the United States simply wants to erase national borders south of the Rio Grande.”
Chávez rejects U.S. air missions because otherwise he would be tacitly belittling the capacity of his nation's air force to patrol its own borders. Chávez has defended the Venezuelan military's record in combating drug trafficking and maintains that it is adequately equipped to do so. Venezuela's representative in the OAS, Virginia Contreras, claims that in so many words Barre McCaffrey told Chávez what should come as no surprise to anyone: the U.S. would never allow a foreign country to do what it is requesting of Venezuela.
Some Venezuelan government officials have raised the possibility of exploring alternative arrangements, including greater interchange of information between the two nations and training programs to boost capacity. Nevertheless, the State Department has failed to pick up on these propositions. In private, Venezuelan government officials express fear that allowing U.S. air force planes to fly on the Venezuelan side of the border will add a new explosive ingredient to the Colombian guerrilla conflict.
Joint efforts like these fit in with the concept some specialists in Inter-American relations have been advocating as appropriate for the post-Cold War era. In a recent book, Joseph Tulchin of the Wilson Center and Francisco Rojas Aravena, director of the Chilean think tank FLASCO, argue that in the absence of a visible enemy at large, Latin American governments are presented with a “window of opportunity.” Specifically, they see “regional partnership” as a corrective to the paternalism, which has traditionally characterized Washington's attitude toward its neighbors to the south.
In certain respects, Foreign Minister Rangel, an outspoken critic of U.S. unilateral decision-making, shares this view. Rangel decries the U.S. certification program in which the State Department evaluates the efforts of foreign governments to combat the drug trade. Rangel proposes that an international commission of recognized authorities take charge of the evaluation process. The proposal may find acceptance among State Department officials, who generally prefer pressuring foreign governments behind the scenes for anti-drug measures. Indeed, the certification program, which was initiated in 1986, was inspired by the crusading spirit of the Republican right in Congress.
Late last year, the New York Times speculated that Venezuela would be “decertified” due to its rejection of U.S. flights over its territory. Caracas thus breathed a sigh of relief in March when the State Department recommended to Congress continued certification.
Rangel takes the same stand on the U.S.'s unilateral evaluation of human rights. Rangel, who forcefully denounced state repression throughout his long career as a journalist and politician, told me: “We definitely do not oppose the outside review process with regard to human rights, but too often these efforts are tainted by political considerations.” Rangel criticized the State Department's annual report on human rights presented to Congress in March for failing to recognize the advances and innovations in Venezuela's new constitution in this area. Subsequently, Rangel questioned the role of the Carter Center and other private foundations in evaluating and making recommendations for the Peruvian elections of May 28 and the Venezuelan ones of July 30. “Governments can not be placed in the same arena as the private sector,” Rangel argued, “since they are singularly responsible for undertaking actions” when human rights are at stake.
Other differences with Washington lay behind the startling remarks by the State Department's Peter Romero in Spain and the more recent ones by Richard Boucher. The new Venezuelan constitution defines the nation's democracy as “participatory,” a term that Foreign Minister Rangel has gotten the OAS to ratify as a model for the entire hemisphere. The phrase is not at all to the liking of the U.S. representatives in the OAS, some of whom consider it nebulous and others synonymous with “mob rule.” One U.S. embassy official in Caracas cynically remarked: “Participatory democracy can mean just about anything, and that's why Chávez and Fujimori like the term so much.”
The U.S. prefers the more limited, mundane concept of “representative democracy,” which centers on elections and political parties, as opposed to participatory democracy's emphasis on popular assemblies, social movements and continuous referendums. For the State Department, the term representative democracy is more manageable for the purpose of censuring governments such as that of Peru, which violate electoral norms or act arbitrarily against political parties.
The Venezuelan delegation to the OAS got the organization to create a special commission to deal with the topic, which organized the conference “Analysis and Reflections on Participatory Democracy” held in Washington last April. Foreign Minister Rangel and other top Venezuelan government spokesmen addressed the conference and stressed Chávez's commitment to participatory democracy, which, according to them, replaced the nation's previous system of representative democracy based on a coterie of corrupt leaders belonging to the traditional parties.
In another area of friction, President Chávez lashed out at the Plan Colombia of massive military aid for threatening to “Vietnamize” the conflict. Caracas has declared itself neutral in the Colombia guerrilla war, a position which some in Washington and Bogotá view as tacit support for the guerrillas. Chávez claims that the position is dictated by two imperatives. First, Venezuela has successfully negotiated with the guerrillas the release of Venezuelans kidnapped in the veritable no-mans land on the Colombian side of the border. Even Chávez's presidential rival, the pro-U.S. Francisco Arias Cárdenas, as governor of the western state of Zulia, established close ties with the ELN guerrilla force in order to help resolve individual problems along the border. In addition, Venezuela has offered its services to both sides in Columbia to negotiate a peace agreement, an objective of special significance for Venezuela given the extensiveness of their common borders.
Other sources of conflict have soured U.S. relations with Venezuela since Chávez's election. In March, Venezuela voted against censuring China, Iran, and Cuba in the UN Commission on Human Rights for the second year in a row. Indeed, a key element of Chávez's third-worldism is his rejection of foreign interference in internal affairs, at least under normal circumstances. Foreign Minister Rangel told me: “Interventionism is often motivated by good intentions but it can not override the principle of national sovereignty. Interventionism may be justified, but only in the case of a military coup.”
On his frequent trips abroad, President Chávez embraces the concept of a “multi-polar” world. When Chávez returned from his tour of OPEC nations in August, he called for the formation of regional blocs in order to achieve a “necessary balance” on the world scale. He went on to indicate that North America and South America are separate blocs, thus implicitly rejecting U.S. plans to bring Chile and even Venezuela into NAFTA under terms dictated by Washington.
Strengthening OPEC also forms part of Chávez's “multi-polar” vision. Immediately after his election as president in December 1998, Chávez announced that Venezuela would not compete with Saudi Arabia in the U.S. market. He also put an end to his predecessor's policy of spurning OPEC-assigned production quotas and scrapped plans to sharply increase the nation's productive capacity. Oil prices immediately picked up. In recognition of Chávez's new leadership role in OPEC, Venezuela was awarded the presidency of the organization.
On his historical tour of ten OPEC nations in August, Chávez recalled a remark made by Ronald Reagan about OPEC in 1986 when oil prices plunged. Chávez stated: “We should never again allow ourselves to be ‘put to our knees'.” The purpose of the trip was to personally invite all of OPEC's heads of state to the organization's Second Summit on September 27 and 28 in Caracas. The meeting was an initiative of the Chávez government, as was the “price band” system in which member nations increase or reduce production in order to ensure that prices oscillate between $22 and $28. At the summit, Chávez proposed the creation of an OPEC bank to serve as an alternative to multilateral lending agencies for the world's poorest nations.
Beyond the host of differences that separate Venezuela and the United States, two basic developments trouble Washington. First, Chávez's third worldism may catch on throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. On August 30, the New York Times pointed out that the State Department would much prefer to see Brazil's discrete Fernando Henrique Cardoso as the continent's top leader than the “firebrand” Hugo Chavez whose foreign policy contains “anti-American elements.” Second, more than any other OPEC nation, Venezuela is responsible for oil price hikes and under Chávez has emerged as the organization's driving force. Of course, the revitalization of OPEC that Venezuela has fomented and the resurgence of third worldism are interrelated.
In the face of the growing tension between Washington and Caracas throughout 1999, Peter Romero took flack from the Pentagon, which considered Chávez's rejection of U.S. aid in the wake of the December 15 hurricane a slap in the face for this country. Romero, a 23-year career diplomat, is particularly vulnerable because his appointment by Clinton in July 1998 has yet to be confirmed by Congress. Romero's unusually blunt remarks in Spain may have been a face-saving device. Indeed, Ambassador Maisto told Foreign Minister Rangel that Romero made them in his own name, an opinion that was seconded by Clinton's Special Assistant for Inter-American Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela.
Nevertheless, another opinion was voiced by the New York Times, which interpreted Romero's remarks as a warning to Chávez on the part of the Clinton administration. They may have also signaled a stiffening of the U.S. position and the triumph of the hard-liners in Washington, who include not only Pentagon officials but also several ex-ambassadors to Venezuela. This interpretation was reinforced by the replacement in August of Ambassador Maisto by hard-liner Donna Hrinak coming from Bolivia.
Peter Romero's remarks in Spain came close to approximating the infamous stereotype of the Ugly American in the prophetic book published 42 years ago. Romero may justify himself by pointing out that globalism's newfangled morality gives him the right to insist on standard norms for democracy and even political behavior in general throughout the world. He may also consider that a new hard line from the U.S. is what is needed to force Venezuela into step. Certainly if the issue were possible electoral fraud as it was in Peru, Romero's statement would have produced less controversy and been defended by Washington policy makers. But in this case, tension stems from Venezuela's effort to redefine democracy with the aim of making it more authentic, and its assertion of an independent foreign policy. A nudge from the U.S.—like the fatuous remarks of Ambassador Louis Sears in The Ugly American—far from being timely may backfire by aggravating differences and radicalizing positions. Z
Steve Ellner is the co-editor of The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika (Westview). He has taught economic history at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977 and has written scores of articles as well as three books on Venezuelan history and politics.