As the presidential election nears, Republicans are relying on their usual fear-mongering tactics by playing on supposed external threats such as Iran. Already it seems such a strategy seems to have moved Obama to the right with the president going out of his way to issue stern warnings toward the Islamic Republic during his State of the Union address. What is more, in a worrying development the Republicans are doing their utmost to link Iran with the Latin American populist left and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, which could have undesirable and unforeseen consequences on U.S. foreign policy.
According to secret U.S. State Department cables recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, American diplomats from Hillary Clinton on down have little evidence of a significant military alliance between Iran and Venezuela, yet that didn't stop surging Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum from exaggerating the threat from this quarter in a recent debate. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has meanwhile been holding hearings on the supposed Iranian-Latin American threat to the U.S.
Hopefully the Democrats will not seek to echo the Chávez-Ahmadinejad military angle which will only serve to further inflame the tattered state of U.S.-Venezuelan relations, yet it's no secret that the Obama administration, like its predecessor, would like to rid itself of the populist left current in Latin America. Such combative posturing is not only regrettable but counter-productive. Indeed, further cables released by WikiLeaks suggest that, with a little bit of effort, Washington might be able to mend fences with Chávez. Whatever the Venezuelan leader may say in public about the U.S. and its wider objectives throughout the region, in private Chávez has been more than happy to search for common ground and extend an olive branch.
Chávez's Charm Offensive
Judging from the cables Chávez was particularly amenable to friendly diplomacy prior to the April, 2002 coup which briefly toppled him from power. Indeed, U.S. diplomats had numerous opportunities to build a constructive relationship with Chávez but squandered their chances. In 1998, for example, political neophyte Chávez approached the U.S. Embassy in advance of Venezuela's upcoming election.
Then a presidential candidate, Chávez had criticized U.S. free trade and neo-liberalism, yet in private discussions with the American ambassador in Caracas the firebrand politician was on his "best behavior" and stressed that his own political success depended "in good measure on his relationship with the U.S." Buttering up the Americans, Chávez said he admired the U.S., "which he traced to his early love of baseball and his contact with U.S. military officers during his service in the armed forces."
Six years earlier, while still a military officer, Chávez had launched an aborted coup against the pro-U.S. government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, and during his discussion with the ambassador Chávez regretted that his relationship with the U.S. had suffered as a result. In hindsight, Chávez said, the 1992 coup attempt was "incorrect," and the aspiring candidate was careful to stress his commitment to democratic principles.
U.S. Ambassador to Chávez: Don't Push Us
Unconvinced by Chávez's charm offensive, U.S. ambassador John Maisto bluntly informed the presidential aspirant that there was "palpable concern" in Washington about Venezuela's political and economic situation. Foreign investment required clear and reliable rules, the ambassador added, and uncertainty about Chávez's fiery rhetoric had given severe pause to investors.
The Americans were particularly concerned about Chávez's plans to convene a constitutional assembly if elected, which "would stop foreign investment cold" and leave Venezuela "without the foreign capital it needs for economic growth." To be sure, the U.S. ambassador conceded, Venezuela's institutions were "tattered" but nevertheless ought to be preserved. Chávez's rhetoric, on the other hand, was "provocative and confusing." At times, the ambassador remarked, Chávez sounded as if he was "promoting not a constitutional assembly but a revolutionary junta."
Speaking with the Americans, Chávez voiced his support for a reform of the state, which in his view needed to be "re-legitimized" in the eyes of the people. On the other hand, Chávez was quick to add, the new assembly would not be a revolutionary junta but rather an elected body with sharply defined responsibilities. Hardly a strident economic nationalist in private, Chávez also told the ambassador that he was in favor of privatizing all state assets save Venezuelan oil company PdVSA.
In an effort to further mollify the U.S. the aspiring candidate added that he would respect all business commitments and international agreements while working to improve counternarcotics cooperation. "My God," Chávez reportedly declared, "my government's success will depend on attracting investment." In a further over the top remark, Chávez said "I hope God grants me the opportunity" to prove a commitment to democracy, economic reform and privatization.
Going even further, the presidential candidate added that he was keenly aware that whoever he selected for his future cabinet would "send a strong signal to investors" about the tenor of his future government. Hinting to the Americans that they had nothing to fear, Chávez said "you will be surprised. I will pick a very good group."
Skeptical Clinton White House
The evidence suggests that, on balance, Chávez continued to seek good relations with the U.S. Shortly after he was elected president in early 1999, Chávez wrote U.S. president Bill Clinton personally, expressing Venezuela's interest in "renewing and reforging" relations with Washington. "We certainly share the desire for a solid and vibrant democracy," Chávez wrote, "the kind envisioned and practiced by men such as Abraham Lincoln and Simón Bolívar."
Still eager to please, Chávez defended his constitutional assembly and was careful to point out that former U.S. president Jimmy Carter no less had praised Venezuela's "democratic revolution." In the economic sphere meanwhile, Venezuela was "open to all types of U.S. private and public sector initiatives to advance our countries' mutual development." On counter-narcotics, Chávez likewise reiterated his intention to fight drug trafficking and "all crimes related to that disease."
In Caracas, Maisto was apparently still unconvinced by Chávez's charm offensive. Speaking to top Venezuelan officials, the U.S. ambassador declared tersely that Chávez must develop a "concrete agenda of agreements in areas of mutual interest," such as a bilateral investment treaty and expanded narcotics cooperation. Moreover, Washington sought a "clear understanding" permitting U.S. aircraft to overfly Venezuela as part of a forward operating location agreement in Curacao and Aruba. Ultimately, remarked the ever skeptical Maisto, "nice words are fine, but...the substance of the bilateral relationship will be determined by concrete cooperation."
Relations Take a Nosedive
If U.S.-Venezuelan relations were frosty during the Clinton era, they became downright combative in the Bush years. WikiLeaks cables show that, far from seeking to repair tattered diplomatic ties, the Bush White House ratcheted up tensions. In an effort to turn up the pressure on Chávez, Washington sent financial aid to the rightist opposition in Venezuela even as Chávez derided the U.S. drug war in Latin America and sought to exert greater control over his country's oil industry. In April, 2002 a coup launched by rightists who had received U.S. financial assistance briefly unseated Chávez from power.
In the wake of the coup, U.S. diplomats were hardly apologetic for their meddling in Venezuelan affairs. In Caracas, the American Chargé d'Affaires asked Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel how it would be possible for relations to improve in light of Chávez's anti-imperialist declarations. Sarcastically turning the tables, the Chargé asked "how the government of Venezuela could characterize any of us as imperialist, when it was Venezuela, not the U.S. government, that owned refineries and gas stations in the U.S., when it was Venezuela that could say whether we could or couldn't use their air space for the...Forward Operation Location flights?"
From there, the conversation degenerated with Rangel accusing the U.S. of plotting the 2002 coup. When the Vice President added that Venezuela had hard proof of Bush administration complicity, the Chargé shot back that if Chávez had such proof it should publish it. Furthermore, the American diplomat added, the U.S. government had itself already investigated Venezuela's allegations and come up with nothing. Preposterously, the diplomat declared that "our recent investigations...into the WMD issue showed we could do an honest investigation."
Failure to "Reset"
With the election of Obama, Chávez seems to have hoped that relations might be set right. In March, 2009 Chávez told U.S. legislators that he was hoping for a "reset" with Washington and reportedly even expressed interest in renewing counternarcotics cooperation. The following month, Chávez met Obama during a Summit of the Americas summit in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Reportedly, Obama told the Venezuelan president that "we will have our differences but I will never get involved in things internal to Venezuela." Chávez claims to have responded, "Believe me that we want to talk but it has not been possible." Chávez then added, in Spanish and English, "Look, I am going to repeat the same thing I said eight years ago to your predecessor, 'I want to be your friend. We want to talk.'"
It seemed like a propitious start, yet Obama, like his predecessors, would squander opportunity by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy in the region. Chávez was particularly irked by U.S. handling of the coup in Honduras and Washington's installation of seven military bases in Colombia. During a TV interview, the Venezuelan remarked "Obama may end up being . . . a great frustration . . . he may end up being only a token used by the empire that continues acting against and attacking the world in a manner even more ferocious and aggressive than in the times of Bush, which is a lot to say."
From Clinton to Bush to Obama, the U.S. had numerous attempts to smooth over relations with Chávez but failed to do so. The WikiLeaks cache ends in early 2010, but it's no secret that Chávez continues to feel frustrated by the course of U.S. foreign policy. Will the Obama White House further ratchet up pressure in response to calls from the major Republican presidential candidates? Adopting such a policy would be importunate at any time but particularly self defeating now as Chávez faces a tough reelection battle in October. If he feels that Obama is determined to stamp out Venezuela's so-called "Bolivarian Revolution," Chávez will surely lash out and relations might be tarnished to an irreparable degree.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left and founder of the Revolutionary Handbook.