Politics & Policy

To CháV or CháV Not

Castro redux.

Condoleezza Rice will inherit some intractable problems when she succeeds Colin Powell as secretary of State–and not all of them concern Asia or the Middle East. Take, for instance, Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez is laboring mightly to mute American influence in the Western Hemisphere.

Padding electoral rolls and intimidating opponents helped Chávez win an August 15 referendum on his rule. Nevertheless, Powell suggested that the U.S. and Venezuela’s volatile president could “find ways to cooperate,” as he told reporters on a trip to Brazil earlier this fall.

But finding common ground with Chávez is easier said than done. Emboldened by the August vote, Chávez is consolidating single-party rule, stoking a South American weapons buildup, campaigning against U.S. involvement in Colombia, and trying to unite neighboring countries against the United States.

On October 31, a dispirited electorate turned out in low numbers for local elections, enabling Chavista candidates to gain control over 20 of Venezuela’s 23 states. Meanwhile, the government initiated a recall to purge opposition legislators from the National Assembly. A new law will permit the government to close radio and TV stations for airing content deemed “contrary to national security.”

In this climate of repression, a prosecutor pursuing Chavez’s political opponents died when a bomb exploded in his car on November 18. With little or no investigation, Information Minister Andrés Izarra quickly blamed the murder on exiles living in the United States.

Jane’s Intelligence Digest reports that Venezuela is rearming its infantry, and buying such military vehicles as Russian MiG-29 fighter-bombers and sophisticated combat helicopters. (Defense Minister Jorge Garcia Carneiro denies the MiG purchase.) Chávez says he needs more weapons to protect the Amazon River and the Panama Canal–news to Brazil, where the Amazon flows, and a surprise to Panama and the United States, treaty partners in safeguarding the Canal.

Chávez wants the United States out of Colombia as well, blaming Washington for the recent deaths of Venezuelan citizens by marauding Colombian guerrillas. Rather than confront the rebels, with whom he is friendly, Chávez told reporters that “the Colombian conflict will continue to affect us and produce tragedies like these as long as the United States provides arms and soldiers for this war.” It was a clever use of twisted facts, no doubt inspired by his ally Fidel Castro.

Elsewhere, Chávez has been an active leader in groups like the South America “People’s Congress” that he introduced last year in Caracas and the Foro de São Paulo. The “People’s Congress” is nothing less than a global organization of leftist parties and terror movements that includes Colombia’s rebels. It opposes U.S. counter-narcotics efforts and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, while advocating Chávez’s so-called “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas”–a regional political union to be led by … guess who?

Chávez also has proposed two regional cartels, PetroCaribe and PetroSur, to integrate Latin America’s state petroleum industries and exclude U.S. oil companies. He played a key role in OPEC decisions to cut oil production and raise prices, and halted exports to the Dominican Republic for a year because a former Venezuelan president and Chávez critic lived there. The cut-off serves as a warning to other oil-dependent nations not to oppose Chávez.

Despite increased revenues from the state-oil company that has enriched Chavez’s coffers, more Venezuelans live below the poverty line than when he took office in 1998. A popular website in Venezuela is MeQuieroIr.com (translation: “I want to leave.com”). Since 2001, it has provided advice to increasing numbers of middle-class adults who want to escape the country’s constricted economy, rampant crime, and political polarization.

If Chávez manages to extend his reach beyond Venezuela’s borders, the exodus could become a flood. Economies once poised to deliver prosperity could become basket cases, and U.S. exports to the region might fall as oil prices climb. Fortunately, few Latin leaders seem inclined to follow Chávez.

Although Secretary Powell avoided fights with Venezuela’s polemical president, his successor won’t have an easy time cooperating. For one thing, President Chávez once called Condoleezza Rice “illiterate.” For another, she could have her hands full encouraging Venezuelan democrats to keep faith, urging international human-rights monitors to protect civil liberties, and diverting Chávez’s thoughts from destabilizing neighboring countries–all the while avoiding direct confrontation.

Like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Hugo Chávez wants to conquer something big. In fact, his target is U.S. influence in the Americas. It’s up to Condoleezza Rice to ensure he doesn’t succeed.

Stephen Johnson is a senior policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.


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