January 21, 2005

January 21, 2005 | WebMemo on Latin America

Venezuela Reality Check

During a recent South American tour, a U.S. Senate delegation showed how futile it is to patronize despots. Members struggled to invent common bonds with Venezuela's authoritarian leader, and then promised what they couldn't deliver.

In Caracas on January 10, Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) called on President Hugo Chávez, offering to repair testy relations with Washington if he would assure oil exports to the United States and cooperate with U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Colombia.

Dodd, the ranking Senator who once advocated friendly ties with Nicaragua's Sandinista comandantes, told Chávez, "Both countries need each other." At a news conference, he added, "Today is a new year, a new page, and we are here to find out if we can begin a new relationship."

Little in Common

It was a nice try, but Venezuela's President has made it abundantly clear that he opposes what the United States stands for-democracy and free markets. He portrays capitalism as savage and has called President Bush a Nazi. Supported by his country's abundant petroleum resources, he has no reason to favor America with oil, help Colombia fight drugs and terrorist guerrillas, or be a nice neighbor.

In fact, recent events prove he is consolidating an authoritarian revolution. Two days before the delegation arrived, Venezuelan soldiers invaded a large cattle ranch to allow a government survey to facilitate an expropriation. Such "land reform" opens a new phase in the state's assault on private property and free enterprise.

A week before, Colombian rebel leader Rodrigo Granda turned up in Venezuela as a naturalized citizen. Venezuelan soldiers made headlines and angered their president by capturing and delivering Granda to Colombian authorities in order to collect a bounty. Chávez calls Colombia's narco-guerrillas comrades and yet denies that he aids or harbors terrorists.

In December, government prosecutors charged political activist Maria Corina Machado with treason for providing technical advice for a petition drive that led to an August 15 referendum on Chávez's rule. Meanwhile, Chávez enacted a law permitting the state to close private media for vaguely defined offenses against public order. The government also has new authority to jail street protesters now reportedly with the help of Cuban police who can search Venezuelan homes and help with arrests. .

Alarming neighbors, Chávez is buying arms from Russia, claiming he must defend the Panama Canal and Amazon River Basin, neither of which is in Venezuela. A year ago, he cut off oil shipments to the Dominican Republic because a former Venezuelan president and political rival lived there. Meanwhile, he supplies friends-like Fidel Castro in Cuba-with petroleum at below-market prices and on generous credit terms.

Now Venezuela's state oil company is pushing Panama to modify a pipeline to allow it to pump crude to tankers anchored in the Pacific Ocean and bound for China-to cut dependence on U.S. markets. Sen. Nelson, the delegation's realist and a seasoned Latin America hand, suggested the United States would be better off reducing its dependence on foreign oil-including Venezuelan crude.

Cooperation Unlikely

Despite continuous verbal assaults from the Chávez regime since it took power in 1998, U.S. administrations have assiduously avoided fights. Prior to the April 2002 uprising that briefly took Chávez from power, U.S. Ambassador Donna Hrinak gave him intelligence on ouster plots in accordance with U.S. policy. The President seemed indifferent, perhaps because he planned to use the situation to neutralize opponents.

The same generals who kept Chávez out of sight for two days recruited a junta of befuddled businessmen and enticed prominent civic leaders to sign a document supporting their "interim" government. Not surprisingly, those who followed along now face criminal charges.

Stung by Senator Dodd's accusation that it did nothing to stop the "coup," the Bush Administration left it to the Organization of American States and former President Jimmy Carter to broker peace and resolve a crisis of confidence in Chávez's rule. Despite difficult negotiations with uncooperative officials, the President's loyalists finally permitted a referendum. But behind Carter's back, they padded voter rolls, intimidated opponents, and then celebrated victory as beleaguered monitors reported only what little they were allowed to see.

Afterward, Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield suggested putting aside differences to seek areas of cooperation with Chávez-to no avail.

Something Ventured, Nothing Gained

Despite claims that the two countries need each other, Venezuela's bully President doesn't think so. And he may be right. Petroleum is fungible, and so shipments diverted to Asia may be replenished by another supplier. And even if Chávez continues helping Colombia's terrorist rebels, he risks a confrontation that could ignite an armed conflict at home. Finally, the United States has already offered better relations. Now it's up to Chávez.

The real challenge is for politicians like Sen. Dodd to see Chávez as an elected dictator. The budding tyrant must have choked back laughter when Dodd asked him to accept U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. Cuba has reportedly sent more than 25,000 doctors, teachers, and intelligence operatives to help corral Venezuela's once free society. Tellingly, hundreds have already tried to escape.

Stephen Johnson is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy