Obama should take Chavez to the mat in 2009

 James Steinberg, nominee for Deputy Secretary of State, on the Obama administration’s Venezuela policy:


“The Obama administration intends to pursue clear eyed diplomacy with Venezuela including direct contacts when they serve our national interests.  Those interests include ending Venezuela’s ties to the FARC and cooperating on counter-narcotics.  For too long, we have ceded the playing field to Chavez whose actions and vision for the region do not serve his citizens or people throughout Latin America.  We intend to play a more active role in Latin America with a positive approach that avoids giving undue prominence to President Chavez’ theatrical attempts to dominate the regional agenda. It remains to be seen whether there is any tangible sign that Venezuela actually wants an improved relationship with the United States.   No decision has been taken with regard to the appropriate manner and level at which to engage with the Venezuelan government.” 


Brazil’s government has quietly offered to act as a mediator between the Obama administration and the revolutionary governments of Venezuela and Bolivia. Some independent political observers are theorizing that with the departure of President George W. Bush, Washington-Caracas tensions will ease and a cooperative dialogue on issues of mutual interest will develop. However, crap!

 The tensions in US-Venezuela relations are mostly one-sided, fabricated and stoked endlessly by President Hugo Chavez because he needs a Yankee bogeyman. It has always been so. “Get under the Yanqui Imperialista’s skin and stay there” probably was one of the first counsels Chavez received from his mentor Fidel Castro, even before he was elected president of Venezuela in December 1998.


The Bush administration’s Venezuela “policy” has received a lot of criticism from the left in Washington, DC. The pro-Chavez cheering section in DC hammered at Bush for eight years because, they insisted, he appointed the wrong people (eg Otto Reich, Roger Noriega) to run Latin America policy at the State Department; because the State Department’s handling of relations with Venezuela was “too partisan (ie right-wong), too aggressive, too heavy-handed.” Again, crap!


It’s true the Bush administration never had a coherent Venezuela policy. Blame Condi Rice. When Bush appointed her as the White House National Security adviser, she asked Bernie Aronson, a Democrat and former assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere, for a top-notch expert on Latin America.  Aronson endorsed John Maisto, the former US Ambassador to Nicaragua and Venezuela, for the senior Latin America post at the National Security Council.


Maisto was the intellectual father of the Clinton administration’s Venezuela policy, which was “watch what Chavez does, not what he says.” In practice, this policy was analogous to moving the goalposts every time the opposing football team moves the ball five or ten yards. While Venezuelan oil continued to flow to US markets and US exporters were shipping ever-larger volumes of goods to Venezuela, Washington didn’t rock Chavez’s boat.


When Maisto accepted the NSC job in January 2001, he recommended to Rice that the Bush administration should continue the Clinton/Maisto moving goalposts policy because it served US interests and Chavez was not the bad man his political opponents claimed. Maisto argued that Chavez was leading a transformational revolution in an oil-rich state that was nearing collapse before his election, and while his rhetoric was offensive and undiplomatic, the US should support the remaking of Venezuela’s democratic institutions.


Maisto, a career diplomat and very liberal Democrat, was the first senior Latin America policy appointment of the Bush administration. Then President Bush nominated Cuban-American conservative Otto Juan Reich as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs. Reich had been US Ambassador in Venezuela during the mid-1980s, and also was very involved in the Reagan administration’s support for the anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua and the war between El Salvador’s conservative (ARENA) government and the Marxist FMLN.


However, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) blocked Reich’s nomination during 2001. Dodd vowed to reporters that Reich would never get even a hearing on his nomination, and urged Bush publicly to nominate someone else, anyone else but not Reich. Bush stuck with Reich, and at year-end used his executive authority to give Reich a congressional recess appointment, which expires after one year.


Without a Senate confirmation to the post, Reich was not granted the required top security clearances and could not effectively function as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere during all of 2001. As a result, Maisto was the Bush administration’s top Latin America policy official during 2001. When al Qaeda destroyed Manhattan’s World Trade Center and damaged the pentagon on 911 that year, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America disappeared from the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda.


By the time Bush gave Reich a congressional recess appointment at the end of 2001, Argentina’s government was only days from what then was considered the largest sovereign debt default in history. In Colombia a rebuilt and rearmed FARC had a controlling share of the cocaine industry, and was battling Colombian security forces in more than two thirds of the country’s departments. Venezuela was not a top priority at the start of 2002, although political assessments and intelligence reports sent to the State Department by the US Embassy in Caracas showed a US awareness and concern that tensions in Venezuela were escalating dangerously.


Despite the flood of reports sent to Washington by the embassy in Caracas, the Bush administration was surprised completely when violence erupted in downtown Caracas on April 11, 2002.


At a private luncheon in the posh Country Club district, Gustavo Cisneros was hosting a high-level lunch on April 11 to welcome newly arrived US Ambassador Charles Shapiro and bid farewell to  departing US Ambassador Donna Hrinak. Shortly after noon everyone’s cell phones started to ring incessantly – except the phones owned by the two US ambassadors.


State Department officials in Washington, DC obtained their “in-country” real-time intelligence on April 11-12 from Globovision’s live feed on the Web. No one at Condi Rice’s NSC had any idea either what was happening in Caracas. Reich immediately ordered the new US Ambassador, Charles Shapiro, to find out “what the hell is happening. Who is in charge of the army and the government?”


In less than 96 hours Chavez was back in power, and in Washington, DC Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd had launched a full-blown political witch hunt against the Bush administration, zeroing in especially on Reich. When Reich’s recess appointment expired at the end of 2002, he resigned from the Bush administration and was replaced by Roger Noriega, who at the time was Bush’s ambassador to the OAS. Before that, Noriega had worked in Congress as the senior Republican staffer on Latin America at both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee.


Dodd was pleased to cast his vote in support of Noriega’s confirmation as the new Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. Noriega was perceived regionally as a lightweight compared to Reich. “No tiene peso politico propio,” a senior Colombian diplomat told Caracas Gringo.  



After he replaced Reich as the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, Noriega periodically made public remarks critical of the Chavez regime, but never had any real impact on US-Venezuela relations. Chavez routinely punched rhetorical holes through Noriega. Then career State Department diplomat Thomas Shannon replaced Noriega as assistant secretary of state. Shannon performed a difficult and thankless job very competently.


The White House had no time to deal with any crises in Latin America. Shannon’s mandate was to keep the lid on the pot, don’t rock any boats, prevent more unpleasant and unwanted surprises for the White House, and ensure that Venezuelan oil shipments to US refineries continued without interruption. Maisto’s “move the goal posts” Venezuela policy became the “tread water” policy of keeping Chavez at a distance while striving to keep afloat America’s drowning influence across the region.  


Meanwhile, Chavez continued to expand his influence in the region, intervene in other countries in an effort to influence elections in favor of radical socialist candidates, support terrorist groups like the FARC, and destabilize the center-right pro-US governments of Colombia and El Salvador.


Now Bush is gone, and the new Obama administration is trying to figure out how to handle Chavez. The main policy options, in our view, are 1) more of the same, meaning no policy at all, or 2) firm unilateral containment.


Shannon already tried to rally support regionally for what he called a “soft containment” policy that would rely on the OAS and multilateral cooperation to quietly persuade Chavez to rein in his worst excesses. But that never worked because other Latin American and Caribbean governments refused to help the US. The majority of these governments prefer to continue pimping oil freebies from Chavez which they know they will never be compelled to repay in full. But more importantly, Venezuela’s president very much enjoys behaving like an enraged bull on a rampage. Chavez particularly loves sticking it to the US government, as President Obama is already learning first-hand.


The Obama administration has roughly 12-18 months to implement an effective containment policy designed to isolate Chavez internationally and cripple his already weakening support at home. The sooner it starts, the more effective any US containment measures are likely to be. There are several measures which Obama can implement immediately.


First, expose with great detail the Chavez regime’s ties with terrorist groups and rogue states sponsoring terrorism, including the FARC and ELN, Hamas, Hezbollah, ETA, Syria and Iran, to name but a few. Add Venezuela to the list of state-sponsors and supporters of terrorism and disseminate the evidence globally. Unlike his unpopular Republican predecessor, President Obama right now has enormous credibility with the mainstream “dead tree” news media.


Second, expose the ties between senior Chavez regime figures and international drug trafficking organizations with operations in Colombia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, the Netherland Antilles, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, the United States, Spain, Italy, Russia, several West African states and some notorious offshore money laundering states in the Asia-Pacific region. Officially decertify Venezuela’s government. Order the Justice and Treasury departments to go after the hidden assets in the Us and other countries of individuals associated with the Chavez regime and suspected of being involved in drug trafficking, money laudnering and other organized crime activities.


Third, suspend all oil imports from Venezuela, immediately. With oil prices down sharply and global demand for oil weakening precipitously as a result of a worldwide recession which is expected to continue for at least two years, there will be a lot of surplus production capacity worldwide that the US could tap instead of continuing to buy Venezuelan oil.


The US buys about 60% of Venezuela’s oil exports, and Venezuela would have a very difficult, if not impossible task finding alternate buyers for the oil it now ships to the US. This is because Venezuelan crude oil is heavier and dirtier, and worldwide there isn’t sufficient deep conversion capacity to process all the crude Venezuela presently exports to the US.


President Obama can argue a strong case to the American people that suspending US oil imports from Venezuela strikes a blow at the main financial pillar of a viscerally anti-US regime ruled by a despot who consorts with terrorist groups and rogue states, and is seeking to destabilize democracy in Latin America.


President Chavez will go ballistic on Obama in an insatnt. But the Chavez regime doesn’t have the cash reserves to last out 2009 if President Obama suspends oil imports from Venezuela. Some of the Venezuelan oil no longer taken by the US might be shipped to China, but a great deal more would find no buyers internationally, forcing Pdvsa to shut down hundreds of production wells and thus inflicting even more fiscal hurt on the Bolivarian revolution.


To be sure, this would indeed be a bold move by the US – and it assumes Obama and team have the collective cojones to take Chavez to the mat. Time will tell.


About Caracas Gringo

Representing less than 0.00000000001515152% of the world population as of 31 December 2011.
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