Historically, Latin America has been of great importance to the United States on numerous counts: the region has in the past, provided the US with a trade surplus; its outflows of licit and ill-begotten funds to US banks, numbers annually in the tens of billions; the US has been, up to recently, the major trading partner in the region; Latin America has provided a lucrative outlet for US buyouts of oil, telecoms, banking and related strategic mining companies during the golden age of imperial pillage (1975 – 1999). Throughout most of the 20th century the
In the latter half of the 20th century
Within this imperial matrix,
Under US hegemony
Toward Conceptualizing US-Venezuelan Relations
Several key concepts are central to the understanding of US-Venezuelan relations in the past and present Chavez era.
These include the notion of ‘hegemony’ in which the ideas and interests of
Venezuelan-US relations were not uniform despite substantial continuities over time. Despite close relations and economic dependence especially during the 1960’s counter-insurgency period,
A key concept toward understanding the decline of
Related to the above, our conceptualization of US-Venezuelan relations emphasizes the high degree of inter-action between global policies and regional conflicts. In operational terms the attempt by Washington to impose universal/global conformity to its war on terrorism led to a US backed coup, which in turn fueled Chavez’ policy of extra hemispheric alignments with adversaries of the White House.
Historical shifts in global economic power and profound changes in the internal make-up of the
We reconceptualize US-Venezuelan relations in light of a declining US economic and rising military empire, as a compensatory mechanism for sustaining hegemony especially as a tool for restoring client domestic elites to power.
The relation between past imperial successes in securing harmonious hegemonic collaborating rulers in the 1990’s and the profound political changes resulting from the crises of and breakdown of neo-liberalism, led
The gap between past (1975 – 2000) dominance and present declining hegemony, in Latin America establishes the parameters for understanding US-Venezuelan relations and in particular the ten years of political confrontation and the incapacity of Washington to restore its client elites to power, despite repeated efforts. Likewise despite
The full story of the emergence of this hemispheric and extra hemispheric polarization between Washington and Caracas which follows tells us a great deal about the future of US-Latin American relations and equally so of the prospects for US empire at a time of financial crises and rising militarism.
Our study draws on interviews in the US and Venezuela, published government documents, newspaper and journal articles, press releases and speeches by principals in both the Venezuelan and US government and informed sources covering the period from the 1990’s to 2010.
Several propositions inform our research and form the bases for developing hypothesis about the relations between empire and anti-imperial regimes.
1.) Financial and military driven empires (like the
2.) Multiple counter-hegemonic strategies can effectively limit the efforts by imperial powers to boycott, destabilize and reverse an anti-imperialist regime.
3.) In some cases, like
4.) Paradigmatic crises (collapse of neo-liberalism) and the subsequent defeat or overthrow of collaborating regimes can lead to a variety of alternatives (from left to center-left to hard right regimes) and multiple imperial policy options (restoration, accommodation, confrontation).
5.) The pursuit of policies reflecting a unipolar world of absolute imperial hegemony (US – Latin America in the 1990’s) becomes a major obstacle to adaptation and strategizing in a world of declining hegemony and a multi-polar context (2000 – 2010).
6.) Extremist imperial policies, including coups (Honduras 2009, Bolivia 2008) and military bases (seven in Colombia 2009) in pursuit of regaining imperial dominances, may exacerbate diplomatic and political isolation with major regional powers even as they regain influence over marginal countries.
7.) Commodity based, export strategies may provide economic resources for extending social welfare and financing capital growth but over the medium run it opens progressive regimes to volatile fluctuations in revenues and political instability.
8.) Strong leaders (Chavez) can be a powerful antidote to imperial aggression and create social cohesion over the short and medium run but may weaken successor leader’s capacity to sustain counter-hegemonic policies and followers.
Our discussion of US-Venezuelan relations will begin with an overview of the period between 1990 – 2010, initially focusing on the impact of the neo-liberal ascendancy and low commodity prices during the Bush Sr. –
In the second section, we will be discussing the trajectory of the Chavez regime’s foreign policy in light of the decade long neo-liberal crises preceding its rise to government and the significant political events which marked a shift in its dealings with
The third section will detail the abrupt shifts in
The fourth section will discuss
The fifth section will detail the Chavez’ regimes responses to US moves at the domestic level (disarticulation of power moves by US assets), regional countermoves (at the OAS, Ibero-American Summit as well as new regional alliances such as Petrocaribe and ALBA) and global realignments (in the Middle East, China, Russia, OPEC).
The sixth section will analyze the success and failures of
Central to the
The increasing turn of the Obama regime toward military instruments as policy tools against Chavez, as well as overt and military coups and thinly veiled threats against his allies, is analyzed in the penultimate section of the paper. The US backed military coup against elected president Zelaya in Honduras, the securing of seven military bases in neighboring Colombia, the undiplomatic threats of Secretary of State Clinton to retaliate against Latin America economic ties with Iran, all add up to increased militarization as a compensatory tool for declining economic leverage. The resort to unilateral policy decisions even at the cost of alienating the most powerful political regimes in the region and at the expense of lucrative economic ties suggests the extremist nature of the Obama regime, contrary to the original conciliatory rhetoric.
In the next section we will investigate the internal debates over US-Venezuelan relations, to determine the divergences and consensus within policy bodies (the Executive) and between institutions (Executive-Congress). We expect greater opposition to official policy in
In the concluding section will sum up the consequences of US militarist policies toward
We will consider the probable outcome of the radicalization of
We will reflect on the capacity of the Venezuelan regime to construct a viable new economic strategy that goes beyond oil dependence to a diversified economy in line with its ‘counter-hegemonic’ foreign policy.
US-Venezuelan Relations 1990 – 1998
The 1990’s were the “golden years” for
US policy perceptions of
Convinced of the stability of its hegemony based on forty years of alternating rule by the two major collaborating parties, the
Several regional factors reinforced
The second factor which influenced Washington’s initial policy toward Venezuela was the growing concern with the major military-political-diplomatic advances of the leftist guerilla movements in Columbia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) which controlled over one-third of the country, were closing in on the major cities and successfully pressing for peace and justice negotiations in a substantial demilitarized zone.
Since Washington was deeply satisfied with the status quo in the region, since it was accustomed to dismiss inconsequential populist demaguery in the region and since Washington believed it controlled strategic ‘assets’ (clients) in the Venezuelan state, economy and society which it could leverage to limit any substantive changes, Washington saw no reason to intervene.
The Bush Period: From January to 9/11/01
During the first period of the Chavez presidency, he was pre-occupied with constitutional, legal and political changes. He argued that the existing legal and political framework was a major obstacle to popular participation, subject to rampant corruption and an obstacle to “structural changes”, which he promised would follow a reordering of the political, judicial and legal system. During this initial period, faced with a President who sought to democratize the political system, and who was engaged in open and free elections, but who still embraced orthodox fiscal, monetary and neo-liberal economic policies, the Bush administration retained the main features of the Clinton administration, of “watchful tolerance”, holding more forceful action if any contingency warranted it. Moreover, Bush’s Latin American policymakers inherited the social explosions which rocked the continent beginning in 2000 and 2001 in
The initial period of ‘peaceful coexistence’ in US-Venezuelan relations was fraught with latent tensions given the Bush administrations appointment of several extremists to influential Latin American positions, including the notorious Otto Reich, Manuel Noriega and others. Moreover, the entire neo-conservative cohort which included notorious militarists like Cheney and Rumsfeld and rightwing Zionists Wolfowitz, Feith and Abrams to top positions in the White House, Pentagon and National Security Council, were primed to launch a more virulent global military driven empire building project to counter declining US influence in the Middle East and
The pretext for the launch of the ‘global war’ was the destruction of the
The Bush administration announced a “global war on terrorism” which included the right to engage in cross border military activities throughout the world against alleged adversaries, a rejection of the Taliban regimes’ offer to negotiate the surrender of “Al Queda” activists if the US could demonstrate their complicity in 9/11, and a subsequent military invasion of Afghanistan, (followed 18 month later) by an invasion of Iraq. The White House’s ‘War on Terrorism’ was effectively a grandiose launch of the neo-conservative manifesto (PNAC) for military driven empire building. The ‘War on Terror’ sought to subordinate allies (NATO – European Union) and Third World countries to US global hegemonic aspirations: Washington quickly and emphatically made it clear that any questioning of the global projection of military power was to “effectively aid the terrorists” and become an adversary to the US.
President Chavez was the first and only head of state to reject the methods and consequences of the Bush Administrations policy. Chavez declared, “you cannot fight terror with terror”.
The Bush global offensive and Chavez forthright defense of diplomacy over war, and self-determination over military intervention (in Afghanistan) was the trigger event which drastically altered US policy toward Venezuela and in particular set in motion events which hastened the emergence of an adversarial relation.
US-Latin American Relations: 2002 – 2003
Shortly after President Chavez took sharp exception to Bush’s claim of extra territorial military powers throughout the world, relations deteriorated sharply. Despite Chavez’s moderate domestic economic policies and the full play of democratic electoral politics and procedures, his declaration of an independent critical foreign policy detonated a series of public criticisms from the far right members of the Bush administration.
From the late fall of 2001 neo-conservatives began to mount a media campaign in the US and Venezuela calling into question the democratic credentials of the Chavez government and insinuating hemispheric security dangers explicit in Chavez opposition to the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Several considerations seems to have agitated the militarists in the White House.
First, Chavez’s declaration of independence from
Secondly, the militarists counted on their assets in the business organizations, legislature and state apparatus to reverse Chavez’ policy, destabilize and perhaps topple the elected government.
Thirdly, the militarists were deeply influenced by events in the nineties during which Latin America regimes generally conformed to US global and regional policies, especially when pressured by
Fourthly, within the
Washington adopted a two-track policy toward Venezuela: a diplomatic track, which included dire threats if Chavez did not retract his position on the US global war (“War on Terror”) and a covert track of consultation, support and organization of a military-civilian coup to overthrow the elected government.
In the late fall of 2001 the State Department sent Grossman on a mission which essentially relayed to the Venezuelan President the seriousness with which Washington took his dissent. The visit, according to Venezuelan officials present during the encounter, ended with Grossman issuing dire threats if Chavez remained adamant in opposition to the
“If you persist in opposing our war on terror, you and future generations of Venezuelans will pay the consequences”.
The predictable failure of Grossman’s big stick” diplomacy accelerated the shift to ‘track-two’ – the overthrow of the Chavez regime via a civilian-military coup backed by a combination of a mass media blitz, the business confederations, the trade union bureaucracy, sectors of the military and the political party opposition.
Contrary to conventional opinion, the big
The view in Washington was that Chavez’ opposition to its global military offensive might provide an alternative point of reference for the newly emerging ‘center-left’ regimes in Latin America and as an elected democratic government undermine the neo-conservative propaganda claims that the ‘war on terror’ was part of a democratic mission only opposed by “Islamic dictatorships”.
With Latin American policy in the hands of what in Washington was known as the “Cuban Mafia”, diplomacy implicit in “track one”, was shunted aside and the “regime change” track two, was fully and unquestionably embraced, whatever the possible lingering, unexpressed doubts which might exist among foreign service professionals.
The April 2002 Coup and its Aftermath
On April 12, 2002, a sector of the military backed by the entire big business elite and the corrupt trade union bureaucracy arrested Chavez and seized power. Immediately Ambassador Shapiro backed by the Bush White House and far right Spanish Prime Minister Aznar, congratulated the self-appointed new president Carmona – head of the business confederation Fedecameras and moved to recognize the illicit regime.
In the lead up to the coup, Bush administration officials were in constant consultation with the coup-makers while escalating a propaganda war against Chavez’ supposedly “strongman rule” and above all “lack of co-operation in the War against Terror”.
US intelligence officials believed that their political, military and media assets were sufficient to overthrow the regime and defeat any restorationist efforts. Therefore, they did not plan or organize a
Several factors entered into
First, they exaggerated the degree of support for the coup among top and middle level military officials, refusing to recognize Chavez’ own military ties and loyalty among the military. Secondly, they over-estimated the military’s loyalty to the business elite and the influence of US missions and overseas training programs in establishing
The over confidence of the State Department in the success of the coup makers was demonstrated by the premature salutations and recognition of the junta prior to the consummation of the coup. While the event was still in progress a mass outpouring of support for Chavez was surrounding the Presidential Palace and there were indications of strong military opposition to the coup and uncertainty among many other top military officials.
In summary the Bush administration’s policy was based on intelligence linked to and dependent on its convinced assets/clients, which merely reinforced desired outcomes rather than the high risks and the views and loyalties of the mass of the population and strategic groups in the military.
The coup triggered a huge outpouring of over a million supporters from the “ranchos” marching on the Presidential palace where the coup makers were holed up.
Military officials and middle ranking commanders of troops took up positions in defense of the restoration of Chavez to power, which precipitated, a shift in the balance of power within the military. Within forty-eight hours, Chavez was released from captivity and restored to power as the coup collapsed under the combined weight of mass mobilization and military power.
The coup and its defeat triggered a realignment of forces within
The coup and restoration of Chavez resulted in a major diplomatic victory. The coup was universally condemned in Latin America and, with the exception of
However, the coup plot and
Nevertheless, the defeat of
The Bosses Lock-Out
Chavez’s initial response to the coup upon returning to the Presidential palace, was to search for a new direction in domestic and foreign policy. He looked for advice from those of his senior advisors in the foreign office who advocated a policy of “reconciliation” and “national unity”. He invited his adversaries both among the business elite and those in the armed forces to join with him in a new consensus based on a policy of consultation; Chavez showed himself generous even to those deeply involved in the coup particular the media moguls, as well as the deeply entrenched senior officials in the public sector enterprises, who retained allegiances toward the leaders of the opposition who appointed them. Chavez extended his hand to the conservative hierarchy of the Catholic church, willing to forgive and forget the blessing they extended to the ephemeral coup. Many of his mass supporters and leaders as well as leftist advisers were disappointed, thinking that the defeat of the elite backed coup was an opportunity to deepen “the revolution”, by expropriating the property of the media moguls and the business elite as well as purging the police, military and intelligence agencies of right wingers who were ideologically hostile and administratively obstructionist.
The response of the business elite was cool to hostile, though they quickly took advantage of Chavez reconciliation offer to quickly regroup and re-launch their intransigent opposition.
In the case of
Apart from the arrest (and flight) of a handful of top coup plotters, the rest of their entourage escaped any judicial prosecution – they went scott-free to return to practice the destabilization and demonization of the Chavez government. In other words leniency toward the coup makers, many on the verge of committing lese majesty, led to another go at knocking out a nemesis of the White House. The Bush Administration made another risky attempt to restore hegemony in a region, slipping to the left. The most formidable asset that remained in the
Even as the US lost important assets in the state apparatus and its political control of the legislative and executive branch was weakened, Washington retained close collaborators in the financial, banking, agricultural sectors and most important of all the top and middle management of the nominally “public” state oil and gas company PDVSA were closely linked to Washington and Big Oil.
Undaunted by Chavez’ defeat of the civilian-military coup, a
The lockout continued into the new year, peaking in late January, until it was decisively beaten back thanks to the massive intervention of management, technical and skilled workers backed by the armed forces.
After a period of negotiations and hesitation, Chavez realized this was not an economically motivated lockout but a politically driven effort to topple the government. He took two decisive measures: he called on the engineers, loyalist managers and the working class to take over and run the oil wells, refineries, port and transport and he fired 15,000 oil executives, managers, technicians and employees who organized and backed the lockout. With the aid of oil shipments from abroad (
Washington’s double defeats gravely weakened its domestic leverage to overthrow or destabilize Chavez forcing a rethink along the lines of adopting a two track approach: an external strategy based in strengthening ties with the far-right Columbian regime, its military and paramilitary force as a platform for launching a military confrontation and an internal electoral strategy.
The Insider Strategy: Masters of Defeats:
The insider strategy was launched by the
The Diplomatic and Electoral confrontation (2003 – 2007)
Despite the loss of assets in both the state apparatus and the strategic petroleum industry, US policymakers still retained a formidable array of supporters in civil society through well financed non-governmental organizations (NG), a powerful propaganda apparatus in the private mass media (over ninety percent backing the opposition and Washington) and a network of weakened but still active political parties, political activists and wealthy political financial backers.
The coup and lockouts and the popular mobilization which defeated them, triggered massive social welfare programs, new government sponsored “missions”, providing universal free health programs via barrio based clinics, a massive literacy campaign and heavily subsidized food distributed by state grocery stores in the poor neighborhoods. Chavez signed on to a huge oil for doctors and professionals deal with
The refusal of the ‘Right’ and its professional class supporters to back the social programs, strengthened popular support for Chavez. The presence of Cuban doctors in social programs provided Chavez with mass support for his strategic alliance with
The referendum was defeated by a huge 20 point margin (60% to 40%), demoralizing the US supported coalition and leading to the further fracturing of the opposition parties. Clearly the timing and the content of the referendum was an extra- ordinarily high risk operation, which demonstrated how clearly out of touch US strategists were with Venezuelan realities.
Clearly the Bush White House and the right wing ideologues were substituting their animus for Chavez for the political realities on the ground. Still, despite all signs to the contrary, Washington persisted in believing that even under the most favorable conditions for Chavez, they could discredit him – Washington supported and publicized an opposition promoted boycott of the legislative election of 2005 (?), resulting in the election of over ninety percent pro-Chavez congress people … and a free hand in pursuing a new and more radical political and socio-economic agenda. The
The Outsider Strategy
This policy faced several major constraints in its implementation. First and foremost, events and political changes in Latin America led to the coming to power of center-left regime opposed to
Thirdly, because of the trade surpluses and the onerous terms imposed by the IMF,
Fourthly, because of huge oil revenue surpluses,
Fifthly, blind to the new realities,
Chavez in response to
Parallel to his new regional plans, Chavez petitioned to be included as a member of MERCOSUR, the four country (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay) regional free trade bloc, thus opening up new trade and joint venture opportunities, to offset any US moves to “embargo” the country.
While for the most part
US: Military Offensive 2008 – 2009:
By late 2008,
Lacking economic leverage and witnessing the rejection of its diplomatic initiatives,
Despite the weakening of
From even before Morales’ election as President of Bolivia (December 2005) Washington maintained close political and economic ties with the ruling class centered in Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and to a lesser degree in Cochabamba. The Bush White House through the DEA, AID and NED financed rightist NGOs and movements who promoted separatist and electoral campaign against Morales’ center-left agenda.
Through its activist Ambassador Goldberg,
The election of Rafael Correa and his decision to terminate the US military base at Manta at the conclusion of the treaty (2009) and ally with Chavez, started bells ringing in the White House. A regional movement in
The most blatant reassertion of US hegemony was the Obama White House support for the civilian-military junta which overthrew the elected Zelaya regime – for aligning with Chavez’ regional alliance ALBA.
In all three cases
Alongside with violent regime changes,
The military destabilization strategy failed in both
US – Venezuelan Relations Under Obama: Change … For the Worse
What is striking about the Obama regimes’ policies toward Latin America and Venezuela are several contrasts: The contradictions between the diplomatic rhetoric of “change” and the continued and even escalating militarization of policy; the contrast between multiple overtures and opportunities to open a ‘new chapter’ of improved relations and the pursuit of policies which worsened relations and increased US isolation; the contrast between a US policy designed to bail out the financial sector and Latin America policies designed to activate its productive and export sector; the contrast between a deep US recession and slow recovery and a mild recession (except Mexico) and a quicker recovery in Latin America; the contrast between the US relative decline as a trading partner with Latin America and the latter’s’ increased trade with China and Asia; the contrast between Washington’s pursuit of politically driven boycotts of Iran and other countries and Latin America’s emphasis on increasing trade and investment across the political spectrum; the contrast between the US military definitions of global security threats and Latin America’s emphasis on free trade and pursuit of “economic developmentalism”.
If these sharply contrasting structural and programmatic differences mark a divergent foreign policy approach, between the US and Latin America, the differences between the US and Venezuela are even more acute, defined by the US military build-up in the Caribbean and Venezuela’s growing national security concerns.
For a President like Obama who promised a new more open relation with Latin America and who received a strong endorsement of all Latin American leaders including the ‘radical trio’ of Castro, Chavez and Evo Morales, his subsequent continuation of Bush era policies rapidly evaporated the good will and in some cases led to public repudiation. In the first OAS meeting, Secretary of State Clinton was the lone vote still backing the boycott and non-recognition of
By mid 2009 the Obama regime took a bigger step toward alienating its neighbors by covertly supporting the military coup in Honduras, then initially denying it was a coup, then refusing to follow Latin America and the OAS by retaining relations, then replacing the OAS as mediator by pushing Costa Rican client Arias and finally recognizing the electoral process organized by the military junta against the position of all Latin regimes except the narco-president of Colombia.
Washington’s recognition and support of the overturn, its constant reference to the illegal authoritarian regime as an “interim regime” spelled out, a return to the use of military coups to overthrow democratically governments which diverge from US foreign policy. In the case of
The centralality of military driven policies against Chavez was dramatically evident in the seven base military treaty signed by Obama and
As the US ‘outsider strategy’ turned toward a massive and sustained military buildup of Colombia – over $6 billion in military aid over the decade – with the introduction of modern fighter planes, drone reconnaissance planes and several thousand advisers and sub-contracted private “security” mercenaries, Chavez turned to Russia for a massive $4 billion dollar purchase of small arms, armored vehicles and warplanes. A US induced ‘arms race’ was on. Chavez described his large scale arms purchases as a deterrent, an effort to increase the cost of an armed intervention.
Secretary of State Clinton responded with thinly veiled threats of “consequences” for economic ties to
US – Latin America’s policy has failed to open a new relationship and certainly has deepened
Rising militarization under Obama as evidenced in the US-Colombia-Venezuela triangle is out of sync with the
The Bush-Obama policy of confrontation and intimidation to force a break between
What is striking about US-Latin American relations is that the deterioration occurs at a time when the so-called center-left regimes have embraced capitalism, foreign investment, moderate regulations on capital flows, co-opted radical social movements and trade unions, retained the bulk of the dubious privatizations and the agro-mineral export model. That the US and particular the Obama regime have failed to build a new positive relationship in these eminently democratic capitalist circumstances can only be attributed to its extremism, its deep-going commitment to military driven empire building.
Even in the case of
As it stands, recent history teaches us that each military and diplomatic move against Chavez has radicalized the regime not intimidated it. Each effort to pressure or to coerce center-left regimes to break with
The diplomatic factions of the State Department, to the extent that they exist and retain any positions of influence, have been rebuffed, as every expression of moderation and possible negotiated solutions is undercut by the ultimatums and unacceptable conditions. Clinton, Obama and Gates set the conditions for good relations on accepting