The Right Message for Hugo Chávez: Let’s Dance
As the flame said to the pouring rain: Let’s Dance
In South America there is a path forward for team Obama
By Michael S. Smith II
“Few believe that Mr. Chávez will start a war with Colombia. But then, as a couple of seasoned Latin American observers have pointed out, no one believed Argentina’s similarly beleaguered strongman, Leopoldo Galtieri, when he began threatening to take Argentina to war with Britain in 1982. In the annals of the region’s authoritarian populism, stranger things have happened.”
-The Washington Post
“Save water, make war: Is it safe to ignore Hugo Chávez’s Bellicose Rhetoric?” (November 12, 2009)
For more than a decade Venezuela President Hugo Chávez has taunted U.S. foreign policy-makers, first as a veritable mosquito in their ears, now as an increasingly serious cause for their concerns. According to some observers, in light of America’s newly negotiated terms for its uses of military installations located throughout Colombia, bases U.S. troops and Drug Enforcement Agency officers will use as staging points for operations part of America’s War on Drugs in the Andean Region, Hugo Chávez is stepping up his provocative rhetoric to new levels. Aside from his paranoia regarding American forces’ growing presences in his neighborhood, mounting obstacles to Chávez’ ability to sustain the social programs that are the lifeblood of his waning popularity in Venezuela are prompting Chávez to employ some very vitriolic remarks, most of which seem to scapegoat America for his country’s and his region’s woes. For some, it appears Chávez may be reaching a point where — in his mind at least — it is time to take a step so many dictators have historically deemed necessary to maintaining support for their agendas at home — initiate a war. But why, most Americans will ask, should we be concerned about how the Obama administration will handle the cuckoo-nest-flyer in Caracas?
President Obama entered office pledging to shift the course of foreign policy away from the one set by President Bush. Rather than confronting anti-American dictators with tough talk, along with what some might call tougher policies, America’s new president announced his plan to take an altogether different approach. Change, so many Americans thought, was in the air as Obama announced his intentions to engage with words leaders who view America as their enemy. “We will extend a hand,” he proclaimed in the case of Iran, “if you will unclench your fist.” Such dialog, it was no-doubt hoped by some in the administration, would expose the terrible flaws at the core of the so-called “hawkish” geo-political strategies endorsed by Mr. Obama’s predecessor.
Soon, however, team Obama ran into what may still be a tough reality for the president to swallow: For “leaders” like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, exchanges of “diplomatic” dialog with the U.S. are the last things they wish to associate with their respective legacies. By now, the notion that these leaders are perhaps something other than the nonrational actors they were pegged as by Bush administration policy strategists has surely flown out of the window. In effect, the president is fast realizing the forms of engagement Mr. Obama hoped he could rely on when dealing with these leaders are not actually actionable options available to him.
If nuance is the essence of statesmanship, a notion posited by Dr. Henry Kissinger in his book “Diplomacy,” Hugo Chávez is no statesman. Chávez is a blowhard. Like many strongmen, he is thinking, speaking, and acting without any form of filter, and no one can forecast with much certitude just what he will do next.
Addressing the world’s foremost forum for diplomacy in 2007 Hugo Chávez broke into one of the most undiplomatic tirades ever issued there by a head of state from anywhere, at any time. After making a great sales pitch for a book titled “Hegemony or Survival: The Imperialist Strategy of the United States,” a book written by pseudo-scientist turned political scientist Noam Chomsky — who Chávez mistakenly referred to as “one of the most prestigious American and world intellectuals” — “Hurricane Hugo” revealed just how distorted the lens through which he views the world truly is, unleashing the following statements:
“The devil [U.S. President George W. Bush] is right at home. The devil, the devil himself, is right in the house.
“And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. [crosses himself] And it smells of sulfur still today.
“Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. Truly. As the owner of the world.
“I think we could call a psychiatrist to analyze yesterday’s statement made by the president of the United States. As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums, to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world.”
Most, irrespective of their views of George W. Bush, were left wondering the extent to which some chemical imbalance was impairing this man’s judgment. “El Diablo. Did he really just call the U.S. president the devil?” we asked.
This bizarre display was not so much a talking-point part of the news cycle in which those remarks were made as it was a laughing point, the likes of which was not paralleled by any other address at the U.N. until Muamar Gadaffi performed his opus there in 2009. Simply put, a psychiatrist would have to be consulted to develop an accurate assessment of the delusions of grandeur Hugo Chávez demonstrated he suffers from that day. Still, it seemed safe to assert Chávez, in the very least, suffers from a personality disorder categorized somewhere among those of the Cluster B spectrum of such mental impairments. And the same holds true today.
In 2007 Chávez’ remarks at the U.N. were not much cause for concern. Then, most heads of state from Latin American and the Caribbean regarded Hugo Chávez as little other than a loud-mouthed idealist. According to their thinking, in time he would prove himself incapable of delivering on his promises to his supporters in Venezuela, and thus fall on his own sword. His gravitas was so discounted on the global stage that during a dinner hosted for the heads of Spain and numerous Latin American countries the king of Spain actually told Chávez to shut up when Chávez began to bloviate before him over supper.
Yet since that time many events have reshaped the world’s views of the man who, pursuant to his implementations of certain constitutional “reforms,” may now be called “el tirano de Venezuela.” Chief among the events that have offered a more disconcerting persona for Hugo Chávez’ legacy:
-Chávez has amended Venezuela’s constitution in ways that may enable him to retain his power over the country for decades to come, and his grip on virtually all major sectors of the Venezuelan economy, from banking to oil, is ever-widening;
-Chávez annually invests billions of dollars in absurdly extraneous military hardware, particularly for a country facing virtually no existential threats, thereby foregoing opportunities to adequately invest in his regime’s expensive domestic social programs. Included among his purchases in recent years are several military submarines. According to the Associated Press, in 2007 he bought 53 military helicopters and 24 SU-30 Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia. Not long thereafter Chávez constructed Venezuela’s own Kalashnikov factory. This, after he purchased 100,000 Kalashnikovs from Russia in 2007. There should be no doubts that Venezuela’s dictator is successfully setting off an arms race in Latin America with such investments;
-The discovery in 2008 of evidence contained on hard drives of laptops owned by key leaders of the Western Hemisphere’s largest terrorist organization directly linked Chávez to those leaders. Information found on the hard drives revealed what was once regarded as conjecture concerning Chávez’ relationship to the Fuerzas Armado Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) was more than just the stuff of previously unqualified dot-connecting;
-Venezuela’s new role as the primary exit point from South America of cocaine bound for the U.S., Canada, and Europe, cocaine usually produced under the supervision and subsequent transport management of FARC. This shocking fact was made public by The Miami Herald when a classified DEA report on the flow of narcotics in our hemisphere was leaked to Herald reporters early in 2007. Before the Herald reported on this trend Hugo Chávez discontinued Venezuela’s partnership in the U.S.-led assault on the cocaine business in the Andean Region. More recently, it was noted in various news reports that in the months preceding the removal of Manuel Zelaya from the presidential office in Tegucigalpa Venezuelan government planes loaded with cocaine were making frequent stops in Honduras, their cargoes en route to America;
-Revelations of Chávez’ growing relationship with the theocratic leadership in Iran. This alliance has been largely codified by each regime’s paranoid fixations on plans which the leaders from both countries say America has to subvert their power. The partnership between these regimes is ostensibly being formalized in order for the leaders of Iran and Venezuela to work together to thwart U.S. interests wherever possible. In July of 2007, Jane’s reported Chávez claimed in January of that year that America’s stance towards both Caracas and Tehran has the same root cause. According to Chávez, “The aggression against Venezuela and the threats against Iran have the same imperialist objective: To dominate our oil reserves.” More recently, Chávez has stated it is his intention to do whatever he can to help Iran achieve its nuclear ambitions, regardless of how many international laws he must break to provide assistance to Iran;
-Chávez’ growing exercises in economic statecraft focused on undermining America’s relationships with virtually all countries in his region. Through his access to Venezuela’s vast supplies of oil Chávez has launched a crude-based form of economic warfare in our hemisphere. He is selling Venezuelan oil to many South and Central American countries at very special rates, which is in turn giving rise to various scenarios where the region’s smaller, less stable countries are becoming almost entirely dependent on Venezuela when trying to meet their energy needs. Another component of Chávez’ economic statecraft strategy is rooted in his new loans programs which target those smaller countries, programs made possible by his accumulation of huge cash reserves. Aside from his newfound role in the drug trade, much of his cash is gotten from sales of oil at non-discounted rates to developed nations, but mostly the U.S., a country where most of Venezuela’s oil is refined into gasoline then sent back to Venezuela for domestic consumption and sales abroad. It has long been rumored some of this gasoline is sold at hugely discounted prices on the “grey market” in order to bolster support for Chávez among the poor peoples of Venezuela’s neighboring countries like Colombia;
-Chávez’ efforts to disrupt the political landscape in Central America through his overt support for Manuel Zelaya’s desires to revise the Honduran constitution in ways that would make it easy for Zelaya to establish another Latin American dictatorship there. This has brought to the forefront evidence of an unexpected evolution in terms of Chávez’ relationship with his neighbors. Specifically, Brazil’s support for Zelaya should be understood by analysts as an extension of Chávez’ growing influence in a country previously thought of as the logical “check” to any extraterritorial ambitions Chávez may harbor;
-Growing concerns regarding Chávez’ relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah cells based in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those relationships should be especially worrisome for security experts when taking into account the dynamics of Chávez’ alliance with Iran, the nation which provides these terrorist organizations the majority of their support in the ways of weapons, money, and passports that provide ease of movement around the globe for members of each organization;
-Finally, just as projected by so many world leaders in years past: Chávez is fast proving himself incapable of living up to the promises he has made to Venezuelans who have helped him stay in office this long. As a result, now the great unknown looming in the minds of most Latin American leaders has become the question of “What will Chávez do next to maintain his rule over Venezuela?”
Throughout the past decade there has remained an overarching consistency relevant to the issue that is Hugo Chávez. That consistency is observable in Chávez’ unyielding disdain for the rule of law, both in terms of Venezuela’s domestic laws and international law, not just his fervent anti-Americanism. Today, even his close friend and ally Fidel Castro is not matching the growing volume of Chávez’ anti-American statements with Castro’s own diatribes of late.
Highlighting Hugo Chávez’ escalation of rhetoric, on November 10 Foreign Policy magazine published an article by Michael Shifter titled “Calm Down, Chávez.” Shifter, the vice president for policy and director of the Andean program at the Inter-American Dialogue, began the piece by providing the following insights:
“Hugo Chávez’s Sunday TV and radio program Aló Presidente is not exactly known for its brevity or reassuring tone. The Venezuelan president’s chief communications vehicle — the 21st century, socialist version of FDR’s notably less incendiary ‘fireside chats’ — often signals his preferred next steps in the 11th year of his grandiose ‘Bolivarian’ reformation of the country.
“So it was cause for concern when Chávez used last Sunday’s program to declare in his characteristically combative style, ‘Let’s not waste a day in our main aim to prepare for war and help the people prepare for war.'”
Shifter went on to ask, “In a politically unsettled and polarized South America, where arms purchases have nearly doubled over the past five years, reaching almost $50 billion last year, could his Venezuela be the spark needed to light a conflict?”
Explaining what has — at least at surface level — spurred Chávez’ latest round of ranting, Shifter notes: “Both Bogotá and Washington have been trying to control the considerable political fallout since the base agreement was leaked in August. Suspicions of U.S. military motives remain, not only in Caracas, but throughout the continent. South America’s strong reaction could have been averted with some diplomatic groundwork, such as prior, high-level consultations with natural allies like Brazil. But the Obama administration had apparently miscalculated how big an effect such seemingly narrow questions can have in the hemisphere.”
Fortunately there is more than meets the eye there.
Just before John McCain made his 2008 presidential campaign stop in Colombia, arriving soon after the high-profile rescues of several Americans and Europeans previously held hostage by FARC, a security specialist from the U.S. met with Colombia’s minister of defense. Days before that meeting the specialist was busy gathering information used to highlight a little-known fact: The rugged, mountainous jungles that demark much of Colombia’s border with Venezuela are the most heavily landmine-laden places on earth, not just places largely controlled by FARC guerillas, not just an area whose topography alone would hamper most large-scale movements of troops therein.
Mr. Chávez, who has become quite chummy with leaders of the FARC — one of whom recently succumbed to injuries he received when he stepped on a landmine that had been buried by his own comrades — is certainly aware of this logistical encumbrance for any plans hatched for Colombia to serve as a staging point for an invasion of Venezuela. The bottom line is that Chávez is no more concerned about the U.S. or Colombia launching an invasion from Colombia than President Obama is worried about Usama bin Laden making an appearance on Dancing with the Stars in order to grow his brand equity among al Qaida sympathizers.
At the risk of presenting a statement that could be construed as suggesting the Obama administration should get a “pass” for its lapse in judgment in Colombia, the president’s advisers should not be held responsible for any near-term prospective turmoil in South America for which Chávez may point to their blunder as the spark. If the U.S. wants to invade Venezuela to overthrow the Chávez regime it will launch that invasion from the sea and by air. Not from Colombia, a country whose infiltration by such vast numbers of Chávez-allied terrorists makes for anything but a suitable environment from which to launch an attack on neighboring Venezuela.
Put simply, speculations about America’s reasons for striking its new deal with Colombia as extensions of anything other than Washington’s renewed focus on fighting narco-trafficking and narco-terrorism in the Andes are the stuff of Chavista propaganda aimed at bolstering support from other Latin American leaders for any conflicts with Colombia which Chávez may be planning to instigate. Any such conflicts will be initiated by Chávez as a means to the ends — so he hopes — of distracting Venezuelans’ attention away from the rapidly declining quality of life they are enduring under Chávez’ rule. Still, the entanglements of U.S. forces that Chávez will certainly arrange through his proxies in Colombia (i.e. FARC guerillas) will serve to provide Chávez — in his mind, that is — a vehicle Chávez may use to portray the U.S. as a bloodthirsty aggressor whose relationships with all South American nations should be the stuff of history moving forward.
If that latter facet of any near-term skirmishes in the Andes between the Chávez regime (and FARC guerillas) and Colombia (and U.S. forces based in Colombia) sounds familiar, it should. It is the same approach to portraying the U.S. in that light as Iran has endeavored to do for nations across the Middle East and Persia since late in 2001.
For policy-makers, the question that must be considered is: If Chávez can succeed in effecting such a relegation of America’s role on the continent, why should Brazil, the nation thought to be anything but an ally of Chávez until Manuel Zelaya was ousted from his seat of power in Honduras, do much to stop him? Chávez will seek to use any conflicts that may arise between his regime and Colombia to diminish the region’s other leaders’ interests in dealing with the Yankees. Therefore Brazil, so Chávez will try to assure “Lula,” will only benefit from new opportunities to become the leading purveyor of goods and services traditionally sold to South American nations by the U.S.
A message to the Obama administration: It is not time to talk to Hugo Chávez. Instead, it is time to establish your dialog with all nations in his region but Venezuela — until Venezuelans muster the will to restore the institutions of democracy that once thrived in their country. It is imperative for the U.S. to repair and strengthen its tenuous trade and other partnerships with our neighbors to America’s south. There is absolutely no reason for the U.S. to have sat back and allowed China to become the largest trade partner for the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, there is no reason for the U.S. to avoid launching an imperative effort to reestablish its historic role as that trade partner.
This will require much straight talk, and the Obama administration should direct its first words to Brazil, a nation whose leaders must come to realize Brazil’s ascendancy within the global economy is one that will only be fueled by further strengthening Brazil’s ties with America. Unfortunately it seems that Brazil’s leaders must first be reminded their country will not benefit from pandering to the whims of a dictator whose burn rate with his domestic political capital could soon enough leave him searching for a new country to call home, if not dead.
When America demonstrates its commitment to restoring and sustaining its vital partnerships with the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean there will be no hope left for any aspirant strongmen from the region whose predecessors’ only net accomplishments have been temporarily disrupting economic growth and political stability in the region. Dually, fewer reasons will be left for leaders from the region to include alliances with any Latin American nations helmed by such strongmen in their agendas.
The best way for America to achieve such desirable outcomes will be for the U.S. to put its money where its mouth is. This means the Obama administration must wise up to the fact that expanding trade ties by reducing barriers to trade with all non-“rogue” nations is intrinsic to our national security. And this realization must be had before the dollar is left in the dust, and Mr. Obama is left with too few carrots to accomplish much of anything, let alone pay for the social programs he wishes to implement in his own country.
Americans should care about how President Obama deals with the blowhard in Caracas because this is a fairly simple test of Mr. Obama’s comprehension of the issues in his own hemisphere. If he and his advisers cannot master those issues, the Obama administration need not try to master the mysteries of the Middle East.
If Hugo Chávez wishes to tango with the “Colossus del Norte,” America should respond by working with all countries in Latin America to remove Chávez from the dance floor altogether.
Many analysts will argue it is impossible to isolate Hugo Chávez. They will ask: “Why should we even try to take that course of action when Chávez can simply continue to grow his trade ties with China, and we will be foregoing access to his oil in the process?” We will lose, and he will win, they will assert when in fact the only way for Chávez to win is for the U.S. to continue to avoid the issue that is Hugo Chávez on the whole. By acknowledging this problem for what it is, and taking steps to address it — however indirectly the process of addressing this issue may be — Obama will be reversing what some are now suggesting was a significant flaw inherent in the Bush administration’s Western Hemisphere policies. He will be tackling the issue, rather than simply ignoring it.
While access to oil has been a paramount concern for America’s foremost security strategists since the passage into law of the National Security Act of 1947, oil is a global commodity, and the U.S. can just as easily access it elsewhere than Venezuela. By redirecting America’s petro-dollars spent on Venezuelan sour crude to sweet crude-harvesting nations in the Middle East and Africa, America will only strengthen its critical relationships with those nations, meanwhile leaving Chávez struggling to fit the bill for his already crumbling empire that was built on promises to give away the world to the poor people of Venezuela.
Perhaps ironically, when it comes to promoting democracy and capitalist economic constructs throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, policy-makers may find the fastest way to generate positive outcomes on those fronts will be to remove the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, while at the same time introducing an embargo on the imports into the U.S. of Venezuelan crude products. There are absolutely zero reasons that exist for the U.S. to continue to provide Latin America’s newest dictator — whose economy is based on oil sales — the resources he needs to promote America’s own economic decline in his neighborhood. (When the CIA is regularly listing the U.S. among Cuba’s top trade partners in its annual publication titled “The World Factbook,” it’s clear the embargo on trade with Cuba, however worthwhile in spirit, is ineffective in practice.)
Hugo Chávez clearly wants to fight an economic war with the U.S. He perceives this as the surest way to militate the demise of America’s role in Latin America and the Caribbean. In response to these ambitions President Obama should send Chávez a message he probably won’t be expecting to receive — Let’s dance. After all, given his performance at home in Venezuela, Chávez has already demonstrated he is quite likely to stumble and fall.