Latin America Advisor
February 2, 2007
Q: The US' ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, said last week that his "suitcases are packed and ready" if President Hugo Chavez makes good on his threat to expel the diplomat for making comments about Chavez's plans to nationalize state utilities. Do you see US-Venezuela relations taking a turn for the worse in the near future, or will the status quo prevail? Will the planned nationalizations be the last straw for what have been sour relations?
A: Guest Comment:
Julia Buxton: "It is frustrating to observe Venezuela and the US entering a new bout in their ongoing fracas. This current skirmish—characterized by the usual microphone diplomacy and hyperbole—underscores the urgent need for the US to develop a coherent and nuanced position on Venezuela. The political reality, unpalatable though it may be for the US, is that Chavez has domestic support, a popular mandate for his Bolivarian revolution, and resources to finance the planned economic changes. There are of course concerns as to the fiscal sustainability and clarity of the government's economic strategy, but it is perturbing that US officials have weighed in so quickly to pass comment on what is still a loosely defined economic vision. These interventions may prove detrimental to precisely those commercial interests that the US government thinks that it is defending. This is particularly the case given that the US has tied criticism of the nationalization plan with a renewed attack on the democratic credentials of the Venezuelan administration. The US response—and the dreadfully mixed messages emanating from State, Intelligence, and Trade Departments, will inevitably provoke a backlash from President Chavez. Moreover, given that the majority of Venezuelans do perceive their political system to be democratic (as repeatedly shown in poll surveys), US criticism will serve only to fuel support for Chavez and anti-Bush sentiment."
A: Board Comment:
Diego Arria: "To end diplomatic relations with the US is part of a process initiated eight years ago by a leader that, thanks to oil prices, punches above his weight. Today, this unfortunate decision seems inevitable, thanks to Chavez's ignorance and disregard for its implications and consequences for the Venezuelan people. He needs to end diplomatic relations with the US to consolidate his image as a leading anti-US activist together with Cuba and Iran, but also to fabricate a fictitious enemy to blame for all of his present and future failings. Such a process is taking place as his totally controlled National Assembly grants him sweeping powers to single-handedly transform all institutions. In short, he has been given the green light to create a totalitarian state. Even the oil companies that for years enthusiastically promoted Chavez in Washington are now under his gun. To further complicate matters, Chavez is vowing to help Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in case of a US attack on Iran, warning that the conflict would take other dimensions. Such tropical bravado would be meaningless but for the disturbing fact that Venezuela has become a safe haven for radical elements, not only from the region but from the Middle East. Syrians and Iranians do not need visas, which explains why countless new Venezuelan nationals with legal Venezuelan passports do not speak Spanish. The potential of 'sleeper cells' in Venezuela, and other like-minded countries like Bolivia, will inevitably create more serious confrontations—and not only with Washington."
A: Guest Comment:
Michael Shifter: "US-Venezuela relations have already taken a number of turns for the worse and, despite some optimistic predictions that there would be a rapprochement following Chavez's re-election, the deterioration continues. That is hardly surprising. Confronting and attacking the United States, which is integral to Chavez's post-election power grab, remains his favorite sport. The announced nationalizations take Chavez's political project a step further, and more closely affect US economic interests than previous measures. Still, the mutual dependence on the critically important petroleum sector is likely to persist and prevent a complete rupture, at least until Chavez can develop an alternative market for Venezuelan oil. In the meantime, he will squeeze as much as he can, and US companies will have to assess the risks and weigh their options. Brownfield's remarks were not critical of Venezuela's economic policy decision—which would have been out of bounds—but rather made clear that he expected the government to meet its legal obligations and give the companies proper compensation. It is hard to imagine that the tension between the US and Venezuela will subside any time soon. Even their shared passion for baseball hasn't helped reduce the huge gap between Chavez and the US ambassador in Caracas."