Secretary Rice Out to Inoculate Venezuela, but Chávez is all but Guaranteed a Clean Win

It was clearly a sign of the administration’s ongoing delusions about Latin America when on February 16, Secretary of State Rice declared that she intended to pursue an “inoculation” strategy against Venezuela, and enlist the support of a “united front” of regional nations.

Assuming that Latin America is filled with Tony Blairs, when the best that the State Department can produce is El Salvador’s Tony Saca, (with maybe Honduras, and perhaps even “socialist” Chile) Condi Rice sets out to build a Latin American “coalition of the willing,” instead finds that the U.S. is more isolated there than ever before in inter-American history.

It was clearly a sign of the administration’s ongoing delusions about Latin America when on February 16, Secretary of State Rice declared that she intended to pursue an “inoculation” strategy against Venezuela, and enlist the support of a “united front” of regional nations. But Rice didn’t specify who would join that cohort, and indeed who beyond a couple of Central American banana republics, and maybe trade obsessed Chile, would be content to be a spear carrier in such an unlikely grand opera? But Washington soon learned that whatever hemispheric political capital it might once have held in its hand, has now run out, having been long since spent in a series of arrogant and ill-conceived campaigns against Chávez and other perceived bogeymen like Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as well as on blatantly unbalanced free trade agreements.

Washington’s new strategy of pursuing U.S. regional interests that are more meant to serve the empire than its colonies, is destined to meet the same unkind fate as most of its previous initiatives. Indeed, if the Bush administration is hoping to assemble a “coalition of the willing” for a crusade against Caracas, it will have a telephone-booth sized corps of allies. Even the usually accommodating outgoing Chilean president Ricardo Lagos declined to join, wistfully observing that “We have signaled that we have a good level of relations with Venezuela, that there are certain positions of the Venezuelan president that we do not share, but that it is better to have a political relationship of exchange and fluid dialogue.” Lagos would go on to remark some days later that the rise of the left in Latin America should not be perceived as a threat to the U.S., and that it represented a move towards greater democratization.

Washington, at least during the Bush administration, is unlikely to shake off its current security dementia, which is as ill-based today as it proved to be even at the height of the Cold War. Rice must realize that her government has far fewer allies in the hemisphere today than Chávez does, and still fewer who might be willing to join such a “united front.” Lagos is not alone: Rice can certainly not count on Argentina’s Kirchner, Bolivia’s Morales, Brazil’s Lula, or even the lukewarm Vazquez of Uruguay, all of whom have defended the Venezuelan leader in the past. And, as other countries in the region prepare to hold elections, the possibility exists that Mexico and Peru could also join the “pink tide” and leave Washington still further alone in the region, even in the English-speaking Caribbean, where perhaps only Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago can be labeled as allies.

Even internationally, the Bush Administration is hard pressed to find friends who share such a vigorous desire to confront Chávez. Tony Blair’s foolish exchange of somewhat ill-informed verbal jabs with the Venezuelan leader early in 2006 was hardly an indication that he shares Rice’s enthusiasm. When running down the list of potential allies, there are few surprising names: only perpetual Washington loyalists such as Colombia and El Salvador appear willing to join in the crusade, although even they also may be in doubt. Such ties are evidenced by El Salvador’s late February decision to initiate CAFTA-DR measures – the first of the signatories to do so. And while Colombia also just agreed upon a free trade pact with the U.S., it has simultaneously moved to strengthen ties with neighboring Venezuela, recently agreeing to undertake a joint gas pipeline project.

This isolation of the U.S. has passed beyond the realm of the symbolic and now is having real, concrete policy repercussions. As Washington continues to press its campaigns against leftists throughout the region, lashing out not only at Chávez but Bolivia’s Morales as well, it will find fewer and fewer nations who are willing to deal with their sclerotic northern Jacobite. In fact, aside from glowing “Sister Republic” boilerplate rhetoric, Latin America almost always has been at odds with Washington, but relations have hit a new low today, which has surpassed even the dark days of Elliott Abrams during the Reagan presidency. But only under Bush has Latin America found itself as estranged from the U.S. as it is today, a result of Bush’s Keystone Cops, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, carrying out their shrill regional policy which brought the alienation to unprecedented heights. The situation has hardly improved now that Rice is taking a much more direct hand in hemispheric issues. We must face the fact that with her acts of boorish incivility towards Cuba, and her new role as leader of the “get Chávez club,” Rice has become the neo-con leader of a new Cold War which is long on rhetoric but painfully short on wisdom. While this is undeniably an ominous outlook, the hope remains that greater congressional pressure and vocal international resistance may help push the administration towards swallowing a badly needed draught of reality.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and Research Fellow Michael LettieriThe Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email [email protected].