On January 31, the Venezuelan National Assembly unanimously
"voted" to hand absolute power over to Hugo Chavez by granting him
the ability to rule by decree for the next 18 months. Shouts of
"Fatherland, Socialism or Death…We will prevail!" rose from
the crowd of Chavista legislators and supporters. The resemblance
to events a half-century ago when Fidel Castro assumed control in
Cuba is unambiguous and deliberate on the part of Chavez. And the
nuance in his increasingly virulent rhetoric speaks to his true
aspirations for the future of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Path Toward Socialism and Beyond
No one doubts that Hugo Chavez is determined to lead Venezuela
down a clear path toward socialism or that he will continue to
nationalize the country's major infrastructure-related
industries-especially those that are foreign owned. No one doubts
that he will continue to erode judicial independence by packing the
Supreme Court of Venezuela with loyalists and by requiring those
not appointed by him to retire or that he will continue to limit
the independence of the press and its ability to contradict the
message of the state through his program of forced
"self-censorship." The one thing that Mr. Chavez has purposefully
hidden within his pointed language is his plan for the future of
the whole Latin American and Caribbean region.
Intentions of the Revolution
As Fidel Castro descended the Sierra Maestra, he repeatedly
invoked the name, ideals, and teachings of Jose Marti. He
attributed his "Revolution" to the spirit of Marti and expressed
his desire to finish Marti' s planned integration of Latin America.
Castro was unable to see his grand plan come to fruition because
his reliance on the Soviets for economic survival enslaved him to
their wishes. The Soviets believed that Castro should not taunt the
U.S. in its own backyard because they were struggling to
counterbalance U.S. power and influence elsewhere in the world.
Hugo Chavez invokes the name of Simon Bolivar with the same
reverence and intention as Castro did Marti. He professes that
modern-day Venezuela is reigniting the Bolivarian Revolution, and
says he has been passed the torch from Marti, Bolivar, and Castro.
Chavez, through his Bolivarian Revolution, has resigned himself to
accomplish what Marti and Bolivar called for and what Castro could
not: the unification of Latin America and the Caribbean as a
counterbalance to U.S. hegemony.
Simon Bolivar was seen as the liberator of Latin America as he
led independence movements in a number of colonies then under
Spanish control. He soon saw his plan for Gran Colombia, a
centralized Latin American government, face heavy opposition from
those he had just liberated. They did not want to cast off one yoke to replace
it with another. Bolivar subsequently named himself dictator to
suppress opposition to his vision. This move only further mobilized
his detractors, leading to an assassination attempt and dashing his
plan for a united Latin America.
Chavez believes that he carries the torch of Simon Bolivar and
will unite Latin America into a counterweight to U.S. hegemony,
much like Castro sought to do. Unlike Castro, Chavez is not
economically constrained; Venezuela is sitting on top of the
world's fifth largest reserve of oil.
The Third Phase of the Revolution
Recently, Hugo Chavez has stated that Venezuela is entering the
"third phase" of the revolution. To most, this language might seem
somewhat harmless; however, it was Fidel Castro, half a century
ago, who used these same words before he informed his Soviet
counterparts of his intention to incite revolution throughout Latin
America. Chavez is communicating his plans for the future to the
Socialist and Communist elements in Latin America. He plans to
unite Latin America to counterbalance U.S. hegemony to fulfill the
aspirations of Marti, Bolivar, and Castro.
Countering Chavez's Ambitions
Hugo Chavez, much like Fidel Castro, is not an ideologue but an
opportunist. Fidel Castro developed into a Communist when he
realized that he would need Soviet funding for his Revolution.
Chavez has seen an opportunity in the vacuum left in the wake of
decreased U.S. interest and influence in the region. Left alone,
Chavez will continue to rail against the evils of the U.S. and free
markets, to exploit the desperation of Latin America's poor through
preaching about the perfection of the Socialist state, and to build
his influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. To counter his
message and influence, the United States should:
- Ignore Chavez's taunts and threats. The U.S. message in
Latin America should continue be one of good governance, belief in
democratic principles, commitment to the liberating powers of the
free market, and respect for the rule of law. Chavez has been
spending vast amounts of oil revenue to finance his regional
aspirations and preach about the evils of U.S. might while violence
and poverty have increased in Venezuela. Answering his taunts will
allow him to avoid the real problems of Venezuela.
- Swiftly approve free-trade agreements with Peru, Columbia,
and Panama. Free-trade agreements are one of the best tools the
U.S. has to counter anti-American and anti-democratic forces in
- Extend trade preferences to Bolivia and Ecuador. These
preferences are about toexpire. The leftist leaders of these
countries have personally embraced Chavez but distanced themselves
from his actual policies. Free-trade agreements with these two
nations may not be possible, and the U.S. does have disagreements
with their governments. Nonetheless, extending trade preferences
will be a gesture of cooperation to the people of these countries
and the wider region.
- Pursue additional bilateral FTAs. Through negotiating
bilateral FTAs, the U.S. can ensure that individual countries are
willing to play by the rules of the free market and are committed
to upholding standards on labor practices and environmental issues.
Linking trade agreements to commitments to good governance and free
market practices allows the U.S. to deal with Latin American
countries based on their actions and practices.
- Enhance security cooperation in the region. The U.S.
should actively work with neighbors and allies to combat threats to
security through cooperative efforts to battle transnational
terrorism and crime and illegal substances. This would create
permanent working relationships and actively work to counter
Like Marti, Bolivar, and Castro, Hugo Chavez aims to counter
U.S. influence in Latin America and the Caribbean by uniting the
region under one socialist regime. Chavez can be expected to
continue to influence his neighbors through petro-diplomacy and
rhetorical rants against the U.S. and free markets. Unless the U.S.
increases its presence in the region through support for democratic
institutions and market institutions, the aspirations of Marti,
Bolivar, Castro, and now Chavez may come to fruition.
C. Dale is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison
Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn
and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The
Heritage Foundation. Matthew Willette, an intern, assisted with
research for this paper.