The following is a Q&A article on current Venezuela-US relations published by the Inter-American Dialogue in its newsletter Latin America Advisor.
Q: Venezuela ended joint military operations and exchanges with the United States last week, and has reportedly arrested US citizens it suspects of spying. What is the relative importance of these events in Venezuela-US relations? How will the US respond? What course of action would you advise US decision-makers to take?
A: Guest Comment: Bernardo Alvarez: “The Government of Venezuela made the decision to request the withdrawal of US military personnel working in various military installations in Venezuela so as to best preserve its sovereignty and independence in the training and development of its armed forces. It’s important to note that Venezuela’s decision has broken no formal agreement or convention.
Venezuela also believes that the relations between the two countries should be based on the principle of reciprocity. In recent months, visas for Venezuelan military officials seeking to conduct official business in the US have been delayed or denied, while their American counterparts have enjoyed open access to Venezuela and have worked in various capacities in different military installations and offices. Venezuela and its armed forces will continue to cooperate with the US on issues of reciprocal interest, much as Venezuela has done with many other countries.
Concerning recent comments made by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in which he expressed unfounded concern over recent arms purchases, the Government of Venezuela reiterates that the purchases were made based on institutional needs and are consistent with the sovereign right of the government to protect its national territory and people. Venezuela is a peaceful country that respects international law, and has no plans to use the arms for any reason other than those of defense. Venezuela has received no complaints or criticisms from any other country in the region over the purchases.”
A: Board Comment: Diego Arria: “This is another step —but not the last— in President Chavez’s split with the US. Oil prices have given his regime a unique sovereignty, turning the Venezuelan state into a giant oil barrel that everybody wants to embrace. Foremost among them is the major oil companies, which for the last years financed public relations, media and lobbying activities which successfully covered up a regime which has now openly emerged as a self-declared enemy of the US. Sending home the last thirteen American officers while bringing hundreds of Cuban military and intelligence officers to Venezuela is the new and disturbing reality.
Castro’s officials in Venezuela are organizing a Cuban-styled militia of over a million Venezuelans as a parallel force to the regular armed forces but ten times larger —a move that should have given pause to Colombia and Brazil. Chavez, whose public records indicate was a mediocre mid-ranking officer who never qualified to train in the United States nor in Europe, obviously controls what used to be friendly armed forces of the US.
A measured response by the US would be to cancel the visas to hundreds of government and military officials who have declared themselves as its enemies —but have houses and bank accounts in the USA. Applicants for visas who admit to being communists are turned down —as well as their immediate families— but those declaring themselves as enemies can play with fire and enjoy Miami, at no cost.”
A: Guest Comment: Howard Glicken: “In my opinion we should try something a bit bold and unexpected by offering a high level meeting with a publicly announced agenda emphasizing our genuine interest in developing a clear and transparent relationship with an important neighbor and old friend. I believe that by us taking the initiative to demonstrate to the world that the US is sincerely interested in open and honest dialogue with our old ally, we will be able to shift some of the influence to the ‘court of public opinion’ and/or blame if it should fail to Chavez. I am confident this will help win support from others in the region which will be particularly important to whatever future position we decide to take.”
A: Guest Comment: Lowell Fleischer: “President Chavez’ decision to further downgrade military ties with the United States comes as no great surprise. The decision is but another step in his political strategy to remove Venezuela from any political and economic influence of the United States. He is also increasing the pressures on international oil companies by unilaterally raising corporate incomes taxes and royalties.
Chavez seems intent on plans to merge the population with the Armed Forces, in his words to form ‘a civic-military fusion which today becomes the strongest column of the Bolivarian Revolution.’ Whether the generally supportive leadership of the Armed Forces is comfortable with this concept remains to be seen, but Chavez does not want US military officers around to influence their thinking. It seems to me that, if true, the reported detention of a US Naval Officer ‘a few months ago’ is more serious than ending military exchanges.
At this point it is difficult to discern what the United States can do other than to intensify its efforts to convince other hemisphere leaders, like Brazil, that it is in their interests, as well as ours, ‘to prevent the Castro/Chavez model from taking hold in the region’ (in the words of a recent Miami Herald editorial).”
Bernardo Alvarez is Venezuela’s Ambassador to the United States.
Diego Arria is Director of the Columbus Group and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. He was formerly Venezuela’s Ambassador to the United Nations.
Howard Glicken is Chairman of The Americas Group in Miami.
Lowell Fleischer is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and an Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University.