April 19, 2009.- U.S.-Venezuela relations took an unexpected favorable turn as the presidents of both countries met for the first time at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago attended by 34 nations of the hemisphere.
U.S. president Barack Obama and his Venezuelan colleague Hugo Chavez spoke to each other two times during the Summit, representing the first steps towards improved relations between the two countries which deteriorated after former U.S. president George W. Bush’s efforts to destabilize the administration of democratically-elected Chavez, including supporting a failed coup attempt in 2002, which led to increased anti-Bush rhetoric from Chavez.
Obama and Chavez met for the first time after Obama approached and greeted the South American leader before the first plenary of Summit on Friday, April 17. “I want to be your friend,” Chavez told Obama as both presidents shook hands. Chavez thanked Obama’s gesture. “It was a good moment,” Chavez told reporters afterwards. “He is a very intelligent man, young, and he is black. He is an experienced politician in spite of his young age,” he added.
Obama later met with the presidents of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), during which Chavez gave him a copy of ‘The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,’ a book by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano which describes the continent’s legacy of colonialism and exploitation by Europe and US. The paperback copy came with the message “For Obama, with affection.” Obama later told reporters “I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book. I’m a reader.”
During the final day of the Summit, Obama approached Chavez again and they spoke in private for several minutes. Obama joked with Chavez comparing him to US talk show star Oprah Winfrey, whose book club turns unknown books into best sellers. “Anything she announces, sells,” Obama told Chavez, according to Chavez’s presidential press office. The book given to Obama by Chavez jumped to number two in Amazon.com’s best selling chart, after ranking 54,295.
When asked about the content of his conversation with Obama, Chavez told reporters that they both ratified their willingness to work on ushering a new era in US-Venezuela relations. “I told Obama that we have decided to appoint a new ambassador,” he said. Chavez added that Obama promised not to interfere in the internal affairs of any country. “We have differences in our points of view, but we have the firm willingness to work together,” Chavez added.
Chavez also spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss a possible normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Chavez told Venezuelan state television that he discussed with Clinton the appointment of new ambassadors in both countries. Last September, Chavez ordered the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela in solidarity with the Bolivian government’s decision to expel the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, after the government of Evo Morales accused the U.S. representative of fomenting separatist movements in Bolivia. The Bush administration expelled Venezuela’s ambassador in response.
On Saturday, after speaking to Clinton, Chavez announced the appointment of Venezuela’s most experienced diplomat, Roy Chaderton, as new ambassador to Washington. Chaderton, a former Venezuelan Foreign Minister during Chavez’s previous term, is Venezuela’s current ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS). If accepted by the U.S., Chaderton’s new post would only require him to move a few feet to his new office, as Venezuela’s Embassy to the U.S. is housed in the same Washington building as the OAS mission he currently heads.
“Of all the summits which I’ve attended in this decade, this is, without doubt, the most successful, the one that opened the doors to a new era of rationality among all the countries,” Chávez told reporters at the end of the Summit.
Before heading back to the U.S. Obama spoke told reporters that the 34-nation Summit was “very productive”. For the U.S. leader, the summit proved it is possible to “disagree respectfully.”
Obama dismissed critics back in the U.S. who questioned his approach to Chavez during the Summit. “Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably one six-hundredths of the United States’. They own [oil refiner and retailer] Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez, we are endangering the strategic interest of the United States,” Obama told reporters. “You would be hard pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela,” he added.
As he highlighted a potential thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba and Venezuela, Obama said the ultimate test “is not simply words, but deeds.”
Obama’s desire to change the way the U.S. relates to Latin America, and his “listen and learn” approach was warmly received by his Latin American counterparts, in contrast to former president Bush, whose presence generated mass protest in Argentina, the host of the previous Summit.
Obama implicitly acknowledged his country’s unappreciated involvement in the region. “One of the things that I mentioned in both public remarks as well as private remarks is that the United States obviously has a history in this region that’s not always appreciated from the perspective of some, but that what we need to do is try to move forward, and that I am responsible for how this administration acts and we will be respectful to those democratically elected governments, even when we disagree with them,” he said during his final press conference.
Obama added that he felt the U.S. could learn a lesson on soft-diplomacy from Cuba. “One thing that I thought was interesting — and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms — hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend. And it’s a reminder for us in the United States that if our only interaction with many of these countries is drug interdiction, if our only interaction is military, then we may not be developing the connections that can, over time, increase our influence and have — have a beneficial effect when we need to try to move policies that are of concern to us forward in the region.”
Recent rhetoric left in the past
The meetings between Chavez and Obama, follows months of speculation after Chavez accused Obama of “throwing the first stone” by launching sharp accusations against him, reminiscent of those made by the Bush administration. During an interview with US Spanish-language Univision before taking office, Obama accused Chávez of obstructing progress in the Latin America and exporting terrorism. “I think Chavez has been a disruptive force in the region,” Obama told Univision in January.
Chavez responded to the attacks by the new U.S. administration by accusing Obama of being “an ignorant” and invited him to study the realities of Latin America.
As the world was heading into recession caused largely by the U.S., Clinton responded to Chavez’s comments by suggesting that Chavez’s government should “really promote democracy” so that “Venezuela can have a free market economy, not fall into the failed policies of the past.” Unlike the U.S., Venezuela’s economy, portions of which is regulated by the state, is expected to grow this year, and its unemployment rate is lower than that of the U.S. as it reached 7.3% in March, in spite of a sharp drop in oil prices. During the Chavez administration Venezuela has steered away from unregulated free-market policies promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which led to economic collapse in several Latin American countries, and which has led to economic recession in the U.S. and iconic collapses such as that of energy trader Enron, prompting the Bush and then the Obama administration to increased state intervention and the injection of billions into banks, automakers and other privately owned companies.
Old vs. new diplomacy
Chavez’s gift to the U.S. president during the Summit, was clearly intended to help Obama become more familiar with the history of the U.S. involvement in the region. However, Obama’s behavior during the Summit signals his knowledge of the effects of U.S. past foreign policy, and the need for a new approach. “While Obama was pressing for a new diplomacy, Davidow was practicing the old,” wrote U.S. social and political activist Tom Hayden in an article criticizing the role played at the Summit by Jeffrey Davidow, a U.S. former ambassador to Venezuela which Obama appointed as U.S. coordinator for the Summit. Davidow had claimed that Chavez wanted a photo with Obama to polish his reputation with Venezuelans. “His spoiler comments were in stark contrast to a president pledged to listening, dialogue and respect,” Hayden said in an article published by the huffingtonpost.com political blog.