What A Difference Three Years Can Make: Bush Rebuffed in Venezuela (Again)

For George Bush the news could not have been worse. Having failed, according to credible accounts, to dislodge firebrand Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez by force in an April 2002 coup d’etat, Bush now must come to terms with the fact that Venezuela has cultivated strong European ties.

For George Bush the news could not have been worse.  Having failed, according to credible accounts, to dislodge firebrand Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez by force in an April 2002 coup d’etat, Bush now must come to terms with the fact that Venezuela has cultivated strong European ties.  That point was underscored this week when Spanish prime minister Jorge Luis Rodriguez Zapatero agreed to sell ten C-295 military transport planes, two CN-235 naval patrol planes and eight coastal patrol vessels worth 1.3bn euros ($1.7bn) to Venezuela.  Though both Zapatero and Chavez stated that the military equipment would be used to peacefully patrol land and sea borders and to prevent drug smuggling, and Zapatero also announced that he would donate three troop transport planes to Colombia, a close U.S. ally, the developments could not have pleased the Bush administration.  The Spanish sale follows close on the heels of Venezuela’s plans to purchase 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 22 helicopters from Russia.  The US state department has accused Venezuela of sparking an arms race.  The rifles, claim U.S. diplomats, could wind up in the hands of the FARC, Colombia’s left-wing rebels.  Now, the Spanish sale is adding fuel to the fire.  The Spanish sale surely did not come as a surprise to the U.S.  As early as January the Spanish minister of Defense, José Bono, made what Zapatero termed a “discreet” visit to Caracas where the Spanish official discussed the arms sales with Chavez.  Currently, the U.S. is trying its best to deal with the diplomatic fallout from the sales.  American diplomats in Spain stated the U.S. “was worried” but had not “complained” to the Spanish government about the arms transfers.  When asked to clarify the U.S. position on Spanish arms sales to Venezuela, Robert Zimmerman of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs commented delicately, “our concerns about arms sales to Venezuela are known to all the relevant parties.” 

Chavez: A Thorn in The Side of the U.S.

Chavez has long been a thorn in the side of the Bush administration.  A frequent critic of the White House, Chavez has lambasted U.S.-led efforts for a free trade zone in the Americas.  What is more, he has criticized the U.S. war in Iraq and furthered ties to traditional U.S. enemies such as Cuba.  For the United States, Venezuela is a nation of key geopolitical importance.  The world’s fifth largest oil producer, Venezuela is also the fourth largest supplier of oil to the United States after Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Last year, Venezuela’s state owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa) accounted for 11.8% (1.52-million barrels a day) of U.S. imports.  However, Chavez has used oil as a geopolitical weapon.  In a provocative move he has shipped oil to the communist island nation of Cuba.  In a further threat to U.S. interests, Chavez has sought to form a regional oil cartel with other left-leaning South American countries.  For taking such unpopular positions, Chavez stated, the United States has sought to have him killed.  If he were assassinated, Chavez remarked, the U.S. could “forget Venezuelan oil.”

Though the U.S. has tried to diplomatically isolate Chavez, with State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher accusing Venezuela of playing a “destabilizing role” in regional affairs, these efforts have not yielded tangible result.  To the contrary: U.S. efforts to pressure Venezuela through third parties such as Spain seem to have backfired.  How did things go amiss for the Bush administration in Venezuela?

The Ties That Bind: Aznar and Bush

During Bush’s first term it seemed that the United States enjoyed a willing foreign partner in Spain.  José María Aznar, who had reorganized Spanish conservatives into the People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP) had been Prime Minister of Spain since 1996.  Aznar, whose grandfather served as Franco’s ambassador to Morocco and the United Nations and whose father was a pro-Franco journalist, was re-elected with an absolute majority in the 2000 general election.  The Spanish prime minister, who had narrowly escaped a 1995 assassination attempt by the Basque terrorist group ETA, made fighting terrorism one of the hallmarks of his administration.  Aznar’s emphasis on combating terrorism fit well with the Bush agenda after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.  What is more, despite robust public opposition (with polls indicating 90% of the Spanish public opposed to the war) and street protests, Aznar supported Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  In August 2003 Aznar sent 1,300 Spanish peace keeping troops to Iraq as part of the government’s support for the U.S. invasion. 

Bush and Aznar: Anti-Chavista Allies

Simultaneously Aznar was Washington’s willing ally in opposing Chavez.  In 2002 the maverick Venezuelan president was looking increasingly vulnerable.  Faced with a growing wave of protests supported by the United States, Chavez was briefly removed from power by the military in a coup d‘etat.  In his place, Pedro Carmona, previously the head of Venezuela’s largest business association, Fedecamaras, became interim president.  However, after poor and marginalized residents of Caracas massed at the presidential palace Chavez was able to return to power and defeat the coup plotters. 

Prior to the April 12 2002 coup Venezuelan businessman Carmona visited high level government officials in Madrid as well as prominent Spanish businessmen.  Once the coup had been carried out Carmona called Aznar and met with the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Manuel Viturro de la Torre.  The Spanish ambassador was accompanied at the meeting by the U.S. Ambassador, Charles Shapiro.  As Chavez languished in a military barracks, PP parliamentary spokesman Gustavo de Arístegui wrote an article in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo supporting the coup.  According to anonymous diplomatic sources who spoke with Inter Press Service, the Spanish foreign ministry holds documents which reveal the Spanish role.  The documents reportedly prove that de la Torre had written instructions from the Aznar government to recognize Carmona as the new president of Venezuela. 

The diplomatic tit-for-tat continued.  After the coup Chavez detained the president of Fedecámaras, Carlos Fernández, who was accused of helping to foment a lock out which reduced oil output in 2002-03.  Fernández was charged with inciting unrest and sedition.  In February 2003 Ana Palacio, the Spanish Minister of External Affairs, criticized the detention.  During his Sunday radio and TV show, Chavez angrily shot back that Spain should not interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs.  “We must respect each other,” said Chavez.  “Don’t get involved in our things and we won’t involve ourselves in your things.  Is it necessary to remember that the Spanish ambassador was here applauding the April coup?”  Chavez added, “Aznar, please, each one in his own place.”  The diplomatic chill continued late into 2003 when Aznar criticized Chavez for adopting “failed models” like those of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.  Chavez retorted that Aznar’s statements were “unacceptable” and added that “perhaps Aznar thinks he is Fernando VII and we are still a colony.  No, Carabobo [a battle of independence] already happened.  Aznar, Ayacucho [another battle during the wars of independence] already occurred.  The Spanish empire was already thrown out of here almost 200 years ago Aznar.  Let those who…stick their noses in Venezuela take note that we will not accept it.”  In a further snub Chavez stated that Aznar should respond to the Spanish public which protested PP support for the invasion of Iraq.  “He should definitely take responsibility for that,” Chavez concluded.

The Tide Starts To Turn

In March 2004 the tide turned.  Despite the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, Jorge Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, or Spanish Socialists’ Workers Party) trailed in the polls.  With general elections called Aznar’s hand picked successor in the PP, Mariano Rajoy, looked likely to win.  In part the PP owed its popularity due to its tough stand on Basque terrorism and ETA.  Then, three days prior to the election the Madrid commuter train bombings killed 201 people and injured 1,500.  The PP hastily blamed ETA for the bombings but as suspicions grew of al Qaeda involvement Aznar’s party suffered.  Some analysts argued that the PP held some responsibility for the Madrid bombings because it sent troops to Iraq and acquiesced in U.S. foreign policy.  Thousands poured out on to the streets to protest the PP.  Zapatero was thrust to an upset victory in the election.  The socialists quickly shifted away from the strongly pro-U.S. focus of the PP, allying closer to the nations of “Old Europe” such as France and Germany.  Zapatero described Spain’s participation in the Iraq war as “a total error.”  In May, two months after his electoral victory, he withdrew Spain’s 1,430 troops.

Chavez Receives A “Rock Star” Welcome

Needless to say Chavez was ecstatic about the socialist win and made no effort to conceal his high spirits.  Shortly after Zapatero’s victory Chavez praised the Spanish government for withdrawing its troops from Iraq.  The firebrand Venezuelan politician was further emboldened after an August 2004 recall referendum failed to force him from office.  The final result showed that 59.25% of voters approved of Chavez and opposed his recall.  Having then survived a coup attempt, a lock out in 2002-3 and a recall effort Chavez looked increasingly secure [what is more, in the October 2004 regional elections governing coalition candidates garnered 90% of the state governments and more than 70% of city governments].  Despite U.S. political pressure Chavez was now becoming a hemispheric leader with real clout.  With Zapatero now in power Chavez traveled to Spain in November 2004.  Chavez expressed his satisfaction with the change of government in Spain, commenting “How happy the Spain of today, and how sad the Spain that was subordinate to Washington’s mandate.” According to Reuters, Chavez received a “rock star welcome” in Madrid.  Once in the Spanish capitol Chavez paid homage to the victims of “M-11.” At the Atocha train station where scores of Spanish had perished in the attack, Chavez was mobbed by the media and hundreds of supporters.  Many waved Venezuelan flags and chanted, “Chavez, friend, the people are with you.”  The indefatigable Chavez buoyed his supporters by criticizing the war in Iraq, the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and U.S. threats against Iran.  During a joint news conference Chavez advocated “a new progressive, transforming and liberating way of thinking,” that should confront the negative effects of the free market neo-liberal economic model.  That model, he maintained, “is only useful for a world at war.”  During the press conference, Zapatero agreed with the Venezuelan‘s comments.

The Moratinos Bombshell

Just as Chavez was touring the Spanish capitol, however, a scandal erupted which turned the government inside out.  Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish Foreign Minister, accused the previous PP administration of supporting the failed coup d’état against Chavez in April 2002.  Speaking on the Spanish TV program “59 segundos,” Moratinos remarked that Aznar’s policy in Venezuela “was something unheard of in Spanish diplomacy, the Spanish ambassador received instructions to support the coup.”  Before the cameras Moratinos declared, “that won’t happen in the future, because we respect the popular will.”  Adding fuel to the fire Chavez remarked “I have no doubt that it [the Spanish involvement] happened.  It was a very serious error on the part of the former government.”  Chavez declared that Venezuela had no problem with the PP nor with Spain, and that for a brief moment the two countries enjoyed good relations.  But later Aznar’s political as well as personal views changed.  “With Aznar,” Chavez stated, “there was neither chemistry, nor physics, nor math.”

Arms Only Tip of The Iceberg

With political upset in Spain the path was now clear for greater economic and political coordination.  In fact, the recent Spanish arms sales were only the tip of the iceberg.  Of key importance was the Spanish oil company Repsol.  As of December, Repsol produced 100,000 barrels of oil per day in Venezuela.  But under a recent deal that figure will go up to 160,000 barrels per day as Repsol expands its operations.  Under the deal Repsol will double its reserves, raise production 60% and become a joint partner with Pdvsa in a gas liquefaction plant and an 80-megawatt electricity generating plant.  Furthermore, under another deal Chavez will buy three ships from Spain including an oil tanker. 

The Boomerang Effect

Arguably the United States itself has brought about this political realignment.  Analysts have suggested that voters held Aznar responsible for the M-11 attacks, a result of Spain’s close alliance with the U.S.  Now Zapatero has punished Bush, first by withdrawing Spain’s forces from Iraq and allying more closely with “Old Europe,” and secondly by pursuing a more independent policy in South America.  In this sense Zapatero seems to agree with Chavez’s desire to create a more “multipolar” world in which smaller nations unite and deal with the U.S. on more equal terms.  Now that Chavez has consolidated power and is extending economic and political ties not only with neighboring South American countries but also with Europe, the United States looks increasingly bereft. 

What a difference three years can make.

Nikolas Kozloff holds a D Phil in Latin American history from Oxford University.  His book, Oil and Power in Venezuela, is forthcoming from University Nebraska Press