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Opinion and Analysis: International

US Policy Increasingly Out of Touch with Latin America’s New Political Reality

As both countries head toward important presidential elections this year, the United States has been intensifying its interventionist policy in Venezuela. However, US attempts to influence Venezuela’s domestic politics while casting it a “rogue state” on an international level, is leaving the Obama administration increasingly out-of-sync with Latin America’s new political reality.

 US Intervention in Venezuela

 Since the election of President Hugo Chávez in 1998, US policy has aimed at removing the Venezuelan president from power and ending the Bolivarian Revolution which he leads. This policy has included support by the Bush presidency for the short-lived April 2002 coup in Venezuela, which failed after mass protests returned Chávez to power. Since then the US has focused on nurturing Venezuela’s conservative opposition, channelling over US$100 million to groups opposed to Chávez since 2002. Meanwhile Washington and US corporate mass media have attempted to de-legitimise his government internationally in a propaganda campaign, portraying Venezuela as a threat to the US and its president as a “dangerous dictator” who has trampled upon democracy and human rights.

Any hopes that the Obama administration would usher a new era of respect for Venezuelan sovereignty have long been dashed, with intervention intensifying as Venezuela’s October 7th presidential election draws closer and Chavez seeks his third term in office. In the last twelve months the US government has imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA for trading with Iran, expelled the Venezuelan consul in Miami based on a suspect documentary implicating the Venezuelan diplomat in plotting a cyber-attack against the US,  and publicly criticised the appointment of Venezuela’s new Defence Minister Henry Rangel Silva.

While direct US actions have maintained a constant rhythm of pressure against Venezuela, Washington’s hopes of removing Chávez from power undoubtedly lie in the possibility of the conservative Democratic Unity Table (MUD) opposition coalition defeating Chávez in this year’s presidential election. According to investigative journalist Eva Golinger, the US is providing the opposition in Venezuela with political advice and financial support to the tune of US$20 million $20 million this year.

This funding for anti-Chávez groups comes from the US national budget, State Department-linked agencies, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID, along with the US Embassy in Caracas. A curious detail suggests that the US Embassy has become a key conduit for the distribution of this money. While the Embassy currently only maintains a Charge D’Affairs responsible for diplomatic operations, and overall staff levels remain unchanged, the Embassy budget jumped from almost $16 million in 2011 to over $24 million for 2012, an unexplained increase of over $8 million.

Washington has long worked to see the development of a united Venezuelan opposition capable of defeating Chávez. With the current MUD coalition displaying relative unity behind opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, and the still popular Chávez currently undergoing treatment for cancer, the US is likely hoping 2012 is the year to see an end to Chávez’s administration. Indeed, the make-up of Venezuela’s opposition reads like a “who’s who” of figures who have received advice and financial support from US sources over the previous decade. Several of those who ran in the opposition’s February primary elections to elect the MUD presidential candidate have ties with US financial aid, including the winner Radonski. His political party Primero Justicia has been a key recipient of funding and political training since its founding in 1999, which has helped it to grow into a national force. US funding has also followed fellow primaries candidate Leopoldo López throughout his political career, first in Primero Justicia, then in Un Nuevo Tiempo from 2002, before receiving NED and USAID funding to support his own organisation Voluntad Popular.

MUD National Assembly deputy and primaries candidate Maria Machado Corina has also received heavy US financial support, as well as holding a private meeting with George W Bush in 2004.

Machado has recently been appointed as a coordinator for Radonski’s “Tricolour Command” presidential election campaign, while Leopoldo López is now a member of the Radonski campaign’s select Political Strategic Command. The Political Strategic Command is headed by experienced opposition figure Professor Ramón Guillermo Aveledo, who with his close political colleagues “assists US sponsors in pouring money into the MUD,” according to analyst Nil Nikandrov.

The importance of US funding in helping to shape the current Venezuelan opposition should not be underestimated. Indeed, according to US Embassy cables released by Wikileaks, in 2009 US Embassy chargé d’affaires John Caulfield argued for increased US funding of opposition groups, as “without our continued assistance, it is possible that the organizations we helped create ... could be forced to close...Our funding will provide those organizations a much-needed lifeline”.

Another aspect of Washington’s approach to Venezuela moving into 2012 has been the increase of aggressive rhetoric designed to de-legitimise the government and open the possibility of more direct intervention. At a special Organisation of American States (OAS) session held in Washington in March, Democrat Congressman Eliot Engel said Venezuelan democracy was being “trampled” by the Chávez administration and advocated a “robust” OAS mission be sent to the country to monitor the October presidential elections.

Not to be outdone by their Democratic counterparts, Republicans have continued to wind up the rhetorical dial on Venezuela. In a presidential nomination debate in Florida this January, Mitt Romney made a commitment to “punish those who are following” Hugo Chávez and his ally Fidel Castro, ex-president of Cuba. He claims that Obama has “failed to respond with resolve” to Chávez’s growing international influence, arguing in his October 2011 foreign policy white paper foreign policy white paper that he would “chart a different course” in US policy toward Venezuela and other leftist governments in Latin America.

Of course, US foreign policy has nothing to do with concern for democracy nor fabrications that Venezuela is involved in plotting an attack against the US. Venezuela is one of the region’s most vibrant democracies, witnessing a huge increase in political participation in the previous decade, both in internationally-certified free and fair elections and in new grassroots forms, such as the thousands of communal councils which have sprung up around the country. Figures in Washington routinely ignore the facts and the evidence regarding Venezuela, for example never mentioning the Chilean-based Latinobarometro regional poll in which Venezuelan citizens regularly demonstrate they have one of the highest levels of support for democracy, and satisfaction with how their democracy works in practice, in Latin America.

Rather, the issue for policy makers in Washington is that since the arrival of Chávez Venezuela has refused to play its designated role within US imperial strategy. That is, to offer a reliable supply of cheap oil controlled by US companies, to act as a market for US-based private foreign investment, and to conduct itself as a submissive ally in US diplomacy. It is the Chávez administration’s policies of national control over oil and using the resource to fund social programmes, nationalising strategically important industries, and vocally opposing US foreign policy while pursuing regional integration on principles contrary to “free trade” that have made Venezuela a “problem” for US foreign policy.

The Regional Dynamic

One of the Chávez’s administration’s key regional integration initiatives is the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), established by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004 as an alternative to US free trade agreements by emphasising mutual solidarity and joint development between member states. The group now contains eight members in Latin America and the Caribbean. Venezuela has also reached out to the Caribbean with the Petrocaribe initiative, in which Venezuela sells oil at preferential rates to participating nations to support their development, with 18 Caribbean states now participating.

The US has responded by trying to isolate Venezuela and discredit the ALBA. Romney has described it as a “virulently anti-American ‘Bolivarian’ movement across Latin America that seeks to undermine institutions of democratic governance and economic opportunity”. Meanwhile, Council of Foreign Relations analyst Joe Hirst rather fancifully tried to paint the organisation’s inclusion of social movements as a mechanism for promoting international terrorism for promoting international terrorism, using information from the long-discredited Farc laptops .

The US has also applied diplomatic pressure to discourage other states from strengthening ties with Venezuela. These have included using  intimidation and diplomatic manoeuvres to try to prevent an alliance between Nicaragua and Venezuela after the 2006 election of leftist Daniel Ortega to the Nicaraguan presidency, and using threats and pressure against Haiti in 2006-7 to scupper the Préval government’s plan to join Petrocaribe. This strategy failed, with Nicaragua joining the ALBA at Ortega’s inauguration in early 2007 and the first Petrocaribe oil shipment reaching Haiti in March 2008.

The US’s interventionist policy toward Venezuela and the ALBA has instead left it looking ever more isolated in the hemisphere. For example, the State Department’s sanctions against PDVSA last May were collectively rejected by the ALBA, Petrocaribe, and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The regional reaction to Cuba’s exclusion from the upcoming Summit of the Americas as a result of US opposition repeats this pattern, with the ALBA countries vocally backing Cuba’s future inclusion in such summits.

The US is increasingly out of touch with the Latin America’s new political reality, as even the smaller Caribbean states and nations friendly to the US are joining the region’s new mechanisms of integration. Within this dynamic, the results of the October presidential election in Venezuela will be decisive for both the future of the country’s Bolivarian Revolution and the continued development of Latin America and the Caribbean’s new regional organisations, most of all the ALBA and Petrocaribe.