Venezuela’s Challenge to U.S. Preeminence in Latin America

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s political and ideological opposition to the United States has led to an escalating antagonism between the two countries, challenging the super-power’s deep-rooted preeminence in the region.

  • Chávez’s rise to power represented the end of non-pluralist democracy in Venezuela.
  • In the aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration has specifically and wrongfully targeted Venezuela as a threat to regional security.
  • Chávez has further distanced himself from Washington by courting the favor of anti-U.S. nations.
  • But Chávez’s anti-U.S. initiatives remain more bark than bite.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s political and ideological opposition to the United States has led to an escalating antagonism between the two countries, challenging the super-power’s deep-rooted preeminence in the region. Though Washington has historically enjoyed a positive, albeit asymmetrical, relationship with Venezuela, the U.S. has increasingly resorted to verbal jabs and more menacing gestures at its former ally since the dramatic rise to power of Venezuela’s flamboyant president in 1998. Unlike his predecessors, Chávez refuses to kowtow to U.S. policy. He has presented a socialist-leaning economic and social program that rejects both the neoliberal reforms promoted by the U.S.-endorsed Washington Consensus and the imperialist nature of U.S. activity in Latin America. Endowed with vast supplies of oil, Chávez seeks to expand his utopian vision throughout the entire region by working to export his populist “Bolivarian Revolution.” Fearing that its own historical hegemony over the region is being threatened, the U.S. has expressed grave concern over Chávez’s leftist orientation, authoritarian character and support of countries it classifies as “rogue regimes.” Ultimately, we can best understand the deterioration of U.S.-Venezuelan relations as a result of Chávez’s rejection of the long-standing status quo that confirms U.S. dominance in Latin America.

From Lesser Partner to Upstart Challenger: Longstanding Continuity Shifts Under Chávez

Chávez’s electoral victory, a result of widespread disillusionment with Venezuela’s corrupt political system, presented the U.S. with a markedly defiant leader who would not obediently adhere to Washington’s policy initiatives. Prior to Chávez, in the period of Punto Fijo democracy (1958-1999), the United States commanded significant influence within Venezuela’s relatively stable, bipartite representative democracy. This incommensurate relationship was based on Washington’s traditional ability to coerce lesser Latin American powers and, more importantly, on Venezuela’s ability to tend to U.S. national security concerns through its capacity to be a dependable supplier of petroleum operating outside the Middle East. According to this mutually beneficial agreement, “economic relations expanded during the Punto Fijo era, and through the end of the twentieth century, the United States consumed 50 percent of all Venezuelan exports… [while] U.S. goods made up 45 percent of Venezuela’s total imports.” Nevertheless, Washington’s special relationship with Venezuela was unable to prevent the deterioration of political stability in the country in the late 1980s and 1990s. The unique political and societal changes that came with the fall of the Punto Fijo regime would ultimately jeopardize U.S. influence in the oil-rich nation and signaled Washington’s waning influence in the region as a whole.

Although the 1958 Punto Fijo agreement which established the cooperative two-party corporative system in Venezuela resulted in unprecedented stability during a wave of antidemocratic authoritarian coups in the rest of Latin America, the deeply ingrained flaws of the nominally representative democracy only temporarily staved off the inevitable demands of the impoverished and disempowered populace. Social disturbances began in the late 1980s when, in light of the global decline in oil prices that helped undermine Venezuela’s petro-based economy, President Carlos Andrés Pérez pursued the neoliberal economic reforms dictated by the Washington Consensus. The austerity measures enacted therein sparked an increase in social tension as the social welfare benefits, previously enjoyed by most Venezuelans, rapidly diminished. In turn, these socioeconomic developments, which particularly have harmed the lower classes, have gone some distance in exposing the corrupt and exclusionary nature of the Venezuelan political system.

In the vacuum of popular politicians and political parties brought about by this political crisis, Hugo Chávez won the presidency in 1998 by offering a political program that genuinely showed a concern for the impoverished majority who composed approximately 75 percent of the nation’s population. His priorities were in stark contrast to those of the corrupt elite of the traditional political establishment, who had done little to alleviate the indigence weighing down the average citizen. Elected on a platform of radical change, Chávez immediately restructured the Venezuelan political system through the promulgation of a new “Bolivarian” constitution that passed through a national referendum. The document underscored his belief in a populist-oriented participatory democracy and the concentration of power in an energetic executive.

Chávez’s vision also entailed reducing the U.S.’s hegemonic influence in Venezuela and throughout the region. The international superpower traditionally used Latin America countries as surrogates to promote its own self-interest, often at the cost of Latin America’s most marginalized citizenry, such as the indigenous and the indigent. However, despite Chávez’s strong anti-American rhetoric, it initially appeared that U.S. policy makers were unwilling to risk the loss of economic interests by hostilely responding to the new president. Under the Clinton administration, the government “hoped to retain the cordiality that characterized relations between the two countries as long as the Chávez government respected the rule of law and the personal integrity and property of American citizens in Venezuela, abstained from nationalizing American businesses, and remained a secure source of petroleum for the United States.” With American interests not visibly threatened and Chávez abiding by the democratic rules of the game, Washington chose not to pursue a confrontational approach. Nonetheless, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela would quickly deteriorate when George W. Bush came to power and began a new era of neoconservative U.S. foreign policy in early 2001.

To the Brink: Chávez Takes on “Mr. Danger”

With Bush’s 2000 election victory, Washington revived an outdated and uncompromising “Cold Warrior” attitude towards the regional political left, characterizing Chávez as an enemy of the United States and all of Latin America. The U.S.-Venezuela war of words began in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Chávez has attracted the ill-will of the Bush administration when, in a statement aired on Venezuela TV, he drew moral equivalency between the inadvertent deaths of Afghani noncombatants during the U.S. bombing campaign and Al Qaeda’s purposeful targeting of American civilians. The tense situation worsened following the coup attempt by Chávez’s main opposition on April 11, 2002. Rather than denouncing the patently undemocratic attempted military takeover, the Bush administration quickly backed the new government and offered U.S. government support to the plotters. Not until military and widespread popular support restored Chávez to power two days later did the U.S. condemn the coup and promise to never again back a military takeover. Washington’s initial support of the coup led to acrimonious accusations by Chávez, who, although failing to present any irrefutable evidence to support such claims, continues to accuse the U.S. of inciting action to topple his government. As a consequence of the short-lived coup and the hostilities exchanged in its wake, the ideological gap between the U.S. and Venezuela widened, a symptom of Washington’s intolerance of Chávez’s indisposition to follow the official U.S. line in the region.

For his part, Chávez’s anti-American ideology has not been limited to political grandstanding. The hugely popular president has refused to cooperate with Washington in consistently aiding next-door neighbor Colombia’s military operations against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerrilla movement labeled by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. Unsurprisingly then, the United States has issued several public statements that accuse Chávez of knowingly harboring FARC forces in Venezuelan territory and providing safe-haven to some of the organizations most important commanders. Though Chávez has surely not gone out of his way to disprove such rumors, and with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe making such claims, the connection between Venezuela and the FARC has not been credibly established and, with Washington’s anti-terror efforts focused on the Middle East, it is unlikely that this transgression alone would gain much attention within the U.S. government.

On the other hand, Chávez’s growing personal, economic and ideological relationship with Fidel Castro has been an impetus for significant debate as to how the United States should deal with the leader who is “increasingly out of step with the world community.” This connection between the two leftist rulers has provoked the ire of the influential Cuban-American community, who regard Chávez’s trade of oil in exchange for Cuban doctors as a means of buttressing Castro’s faltering regime. The impact of the Chávez-Castro connection on U.S. politics was evident in the 2004 U.S. presidential election when John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, took a hard-line stance against Chávez similar to that of the Bush administration, ostensibly to garner votes among the firmly Republican Cuban-American population in the swing-state of Florida. Like Chávez’s anti-American rhetoric, there are clear political advantages for both Republican and Democratic politicians to advocate an intransigent position against the Venezuelan leader, though there may be little substance behind their incendiary remarks. What is lucid though is the Bush administration’s black-and-white Cold War mind-set that exaggerates Chávez’s assertive attitude, portraying the Venezuelan president as simply another one-dimensional menace to the U.S. and Latin America, rather than addressing the full complexity of the situation.

Regional Spillover: Chávez’s Influence in Latin America and Beyond

Further plaguing Washington’s Latin America agenda are Chávez’s aspirations to export his revolution beyond the borders of Venezuela. Chávez is challenging the long-established U.S. dominance through his advocacy of a leftist form of governance that, according to Chávez, stands for the empowerment of the disaffected masses of Latin America, rejection of U.S.-sponsored neoliberal reforms and a populist interpretation of democracy. He has been explicit in his overarching desire to extend his influence throughout the region and reduce American military presence in his country while forging an independent and contentious foreign policy that makes his presence very well known on the world stage.

To this end, Chávez’s oil diplomacy is not limited to Cuba; he provides oil on preferential terms to countries throughout Latin America, focusing on the Caribbean through the 13-nation PetroCaribe group and on the left-leaning governments of Argentina and Brazil. The victory of Evo Morales, the Chávez-backed leader of the Movement for Socialism, in the 2005 Bolivian presidential elections confirmed U.S. fears that Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution was gaining momentum on the continent. An essential factor in this recent rise of the Left has been the desperate poverty of the lowest sectors of society, aggravated by U.S.-endorsed neoliberal reforms of which Chávez is an ardent opponent. In his mission against this species of economic policy, Chávez rallied Latin American leaders, such as Argentinean President Néstor Kirchner and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to successfully block an attempt by the U.S. to revive talks on the Free Trade of the Americas in 2005 and promote his own Bolivian Alternative for the Americas. Furthermore, in light of the Free Trade Agreement Colombia and Perú signed with the U.S., Chávez withdrew Venezuela from the Andean Community in April 2006 and has recently joined the alternative regional trade bloc of South America, MERCOSUR, a step of very real consequence.

Within Venezuela, Chávez has been curbing cooperation with the U.S. military. Historically, the U.S. has exercised protrusive military influence in Latin America. In Venezuela, the U.S. has exerted this influence “through its large Military Assistance Group, a diverse team of army, air force, and navy personnel which regularly trains its Venezuelan counterparts.” Chávez’s efforts to limit the role of the U.S. military within his country came to head in April 2005 when Chávez called for the termination of military ties with the U.S., evicting one or more U.S. diplomatic attachés he accused of inciting dissent within the Venezuelan armed forces. At the same time, Chávez has secured agreements with Russia in a $3.5 billion deal to purchase 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles along with combat helicopters and fighter jets, supposedly preparing for what he claims to be an imminent U.S. invasion. Further distancing the two parties, the U.S. announced this past May a ban on all military sales to Venezuela, ludicrously claiming, with no evidence, that Chávez was not playing his part in the war on terrorism.

Also frustrating Washington is Venezuela’s independent, multipolar foreign policy extending beyond the customary hemispheric limits of Latin America’s political involvement that includes strengthening relations with countries the U.S. regards as threatening rogue regimes. While the U.S.’s hegemonic influence in the region has often predetermined the foreign policy of its subservient allies there, Chávez has forged closer ties with China and such rouge nations as North Korea and Iran.

Of particular consternation to the U.S. is Venezuela’s developing relations with Iran, listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. State Department. Notwithstanding Iran’s terrorist links, U.S. suspicions regarding the Venezuelan-Iranian connection seem to be overplayed, especially as long as their relations persist along commercial and not military lines. Moreover, Venezuela has the sovereign right to conduct its own foreign policy according to the universally recognized principle in international law of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. Considering both countries share mutual goals as regional rivals of the U.S. and price hawks within OPEC, Venezuela’s association with Iran seems perfectly logical from its perspective. With Chávez his canceling previously scheduled visit the virulently anti-U.S. dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, Washington’s ability to set policy in the region appears to retain at least some leverage.

Bad Neighbor Policy: U.S. and Venezuela Head to Head

Hugo Chávez represents an alternate, appealing vision to the indigenous, nonwhite masses that threatens the U.S.’s traditional sphere of influence in Latin America. Judging by its already significant clout in the region, “it has been clear that Venezuela, with a population of 26 million, is too small a stage for Chávez’s ambitions…. He has skillfully managed to establish himself as a global and regional leader, using oil money and brash anti-Americanism to attempt to construct a counterweight to U.S. power.” In response, Washington has attempted to contain the spread of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution by political, diplomatic, and economic means, rather than resort to covert or overt military operations as was typical during the Cold War era. At the same time, room for compromise still exists; at her confirmation hearings in 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed hope “that the government of Venezuela will continue to recognize what has been a mutually beneficial relationship on energy” and “continue to pursue counter-drug activities in the Andean region.” Nonetheless, the clashing regional aspirations between the long-established hegemon and its upstart ideological adversary, along with the ongoing hostile rhetoric will continue to lead to conflict between the two parties. This is particularly true regarding resolute U.S. opposition to Venezuela’s seemingly non-threatening bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. As the U.S. tries to retain its loosening grip in Latin America through political sparring with the independent-minded, anti-American Chávez, regional stability is threatened as the other countries in the region are reluctantly forced to side between the two divergent camps of the U.S. and Venezuela in a manner akin to the polarization characteristic of the Cold War.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Matan Shamir