State clarifies Venezuela policy: Oops!

US State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said last week that the Obama administration thinks the 15 February referendum on President Hugo Chavez’s bid to win perpetual re-election rights “was held consistent with democratic principles.”

But today’s Wall Street Journal quotes an unnamed State Department official who says the “state of health of democracy in Venezuela is not very good…there’s no change in policy.”

Confusing? Yes, but not unusual.

US foreign policy towards Venezuela under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was too frequently confusing, contradictory and prone to a dismissive indifference – until it was far too late to contain Chavez.

Blame it on a combination of bad policies (i.e. “watch what Chavez does, not what he says”), putting the wrong people in senior State and NSC policymaking jobs (i.e. John Maisto, Roger Noriega), consistently poor US intelligence about Chavez, and missed opportunities to contain Chavez’s regional adventurism.

Whatever the reasons might be for the failed US policy towards Venezuela, why should Obama fare any differently than his predecessors?

Venezuela and the rest of Latin America have never been high US priorities, regardless of what successive US presidents, secretaries of state, etc. have said repeatedly during the past 20 years.

Anyone who has ever worked in the field of Latin American policymaking in Washington, DC knows that the US foreign policy machine – State, NSC, DoD, Congress, the liberal and conservative think tanks, mainstream news media, etc. – is focused overwhelmingly on East-West strategic issues and the Middle East (oil and Israel).

Traditionally very little attention has been paid to Latin America in Washington, and even less to Africa. This likely won’t change under Obama, regardless of what he might pledge in speeches.

Meanwhile, the unnamed US State Department refuted spokesman Duguid’s remarks and said US policy towards Venezuela has not changed.

But what policy was the unnamed diplomat referring to? Does the Obama administration have a Venezuela policy? Did the Bush administration have a Venezuela policy?

A priority of the Clinton/Bush Venezuela policies, and presumably Obama’s Venezuela policy, is to keep Venezuelan oil exports flowing to the US. But Venezuela’s oil exports to the US have been falling steadily for several years, and Chavez says Venezuela’s oil is China’s for the next 500 years, starting with 1 million b/d by 2014. Moreover. Obama’s energy policy names Venezuela as a country the new US president plans to stop importing oil from within a decade.

So what, exactly, is the US government’s policy towards Venezuela? If it’s not “watch what Chavez does, not what he says” anymore, then what? Soft containment? Before he was Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Thomas Shanon spoke of “soft containment,” i.e. effective regional public diplomacy.

*Whatever the US policy on Venezuela might be, not a single country in Latin America (not even Colombia) has endorsed it publkicly or agreed to cooperate with the US on its implementation. Chavez also neutralized the US in the Organization of American States, a relic of Cold War multilateralism that doesn’t really do anything to defend and advance the causes of democracy, individual freedom and private enterprise – at least not in Venezuela.

*US policy on Venezuela has not hindered Chavez’s regional adventurism and his interference in the internal sovereign affairs and electoral politics of countries like Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Belize, and even Brazil.

*Chavez gave the Castro regime a huge financial and energy lifeline in 200, currently worth over $5 billion a year, by some estimates, and the US was powerless to stop the deal. Now Cuba literally owns important parts of Venezuela’s security and governing institutions, and the Cuban revolution is “grafting” itself physically to the Bolivarian revolution with some 50,000 Cubans already in Venezuela, by some accounts, and thousands more scheduled to start arriving this year to farm the Orinoco basin’s undeveloped lands.

*The US also has failed to slow the global spread of strategic alliances between the Chavez regime and US competitors and enemies like China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, etc. Chavez gave the US military mission the boot after more than 40 years in Venezuela; forged strategic military and security alliances with Cuba, Russia, China and Iran; has purchased some $6 billion of Russian weapons and is also buying military radars and jet trainer/ground attack aircraft from China. Chavez also has a nuclear development cooperation deal in place with Moscow, and expects to receive Iranian nuclear (and likely missile) technology assistance too.

*US policy towards Venezuela also has failed to stop Chavez from forming tacit strategic alliances with the FARC and ELN and allowing the leaders of this enarcoterrorist groups to hide in Venezuela. Spain’s ETA also is tolerated by the Chavez regime, while IRA gunmen have been allowed free passage through Venezuela to/from Colombia since Chavez has been president. Islamic militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas have an active fundraising and strategic regional presence in Venezuela. Chavez also actively helps Iran skirt a UN prohibition on exports of missile technology, which Tehran is sending to Damascus.

Perhaps the Obama administration plans to use some of that new “smart” diplomacy on Chavez that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been talking about, which apparently includes de-emphasizing human rights in Washington’s relations with China (please oh please keep buying US Treasuries), blaming Bush for all the bad and dysfunctional stuff in US foreign policy for as long as possible, and jawboning America’s enemies into settling their hate-driven Jihads against the US through peaceful negotiation and Yankee charm. Been there and tried that with Jimmy Carter. It failed miserably then and will fail even worse now.

Caracas Gringo doesn’t see an Obama policy on Venezuela, just as he never saw a Venezuela policy during the Bush administration. The preceding remark is not meant to dismiss or downplay the considerable achievements under very difficult conditions of pros like Shannon and Otto Reich who understand the core evil and fascism of the Chavez regime. But it’s impossible to soar with the eagles when the “principals,” as the most senior (i.e. Cabinet) officials in the executive are called, have no enduring interest in Venezuela or Latin America.

After the “watch what Chavez does, not what he says” policy was blown out of the water by the political violence of 11-14 April, 2002, the White House and Secretary of State Colin Powell mistakenly tried to bridge differences with Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) by nominating then-Ambassador to the OAS Roger Noriega as assistant secretary of state for Latin America. But US policy towards Venezuela did not improve.

Then Shannon replaced Noriega, and US relations with Latin America started to improve in some areas, most notably with Brazil, though not with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba or Argentina. If there has been a Venezuela (and Latin America) policy in the White House during Shannon’s watch at State, it’s “avoid rocking the boat unnecessarily in the region.” But this “policy” very likely was forced on Shannon.

Shannon has stayed on during the start of the Obama administration, but the White House – and Secretary of State Clinton – still haven’t put together a first-rate policy team for Latin America. Part of the problem appears to be lack of interest in Latin America among the “principals” – the same old same old as under Bush.

The Obama administration seems to have difficulty absorbing, or even acknowledging publicly, that Mexico’s democratic government is waging a war against power drug cartels which could be more important to the US strategically and geopolitically than, say, Afghanistan. How, then, can Obama be expected to pay attention to events further to the south in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America?

About Caracas Gringo

Representing less than 0.00000000001515152% of the world population as of 31 December 2011.
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2 Responses to State clarifies Venezuela policy: Oops!

  1. Charly says:

    Gringo: On Afghanistan, the new administration will have to learn the lesson the hard way, the same that any foreign invading power learned starting with Younghusband and last the Soviets. This country will be Obama’s Vietnam unless he pulls out. If he does then this becomes Iran and Pakistan’s problem. Kill two birds with one stone. He is smart enough?

    On the subject of Venezuela, as long as the oil flows to the US and it still flows to the US because China still does not have enough refining capacity for heavy sulphur laden oil, no problem! Having lived in the Middle East in the last few years including Iraq and preferring to study their Philosophy rather than their will to go to paradise in a rush blowing themselves up, I have brought back with me a jewel of their culture: ” If you sit on the bank of the river long enough you will eventually see the corpse of your enemy float by”. I am sitting by the river. Venezuelans are the ones to fix their problems, not Hillary Clinton.

    Chavez is a fascist, yes, so what? There is a meltdown out there. When life gets rough, people are going to gather around a strong man. Venezuela with 27 million population will be a lesser problem. Far more populated countries will follow this path. If Obama thinks Chavez is no problem, it means he’s got bigger fish to fry. This depression we are withnessing will turn civilization upside down. Personally (and I am not a Yank) I believe the US will come out of it in about 10 years from now before any other country and much stronger. This planet will be under Uncle Sam’s thumb for much longer. The US still is and will remain for a while the place where one can start a new life on the merits of his own value, at least I hope.

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  2. Martin says:

    Gringo: Your comments are to the point, but are, I think, a little premature. If indeed Barack Obama does just turn out to be another Jimmy Carter then that is very, very bad news for the free world, or what is left of it. But I prefer to hold out hope that Obama’s foreign policy will, like his domestic policy, turn out to be pleasantly original, wise, non-dogmatic, appropriately assertive, goal-orientated, pre-emptive (in the best sense!) using the strengths and weaknesses of enemies to his fullest advantage. As Joe Biden famously pointed out, he will be tested quickly. Of course those first tests won’t be from Chavez, though he’ll be watching like a hawk from the sidelines. It could be one of any number of issues – Iran, North Korea, Russia, the Middle East, or even, as you point, out Mexico, that provides that crucial challenge from which he will be judged on all others. It hasn’t happened yet; he still has time. When that opportunity comes to make his mark, though, he must take it. He has some clever people in his inner circle, none who could be described as pushovers in any way. Biden himself is regarded by some in his own party as a foreign policy hawk; Hilary, I think, is itching to create that ‘Iron Lady” persona that she had hoped would give her the presidency, and which will endear her forever to Middle America; Gates’ credentials go without saying; I don’t know much about his National Security Advisor, except that he is an ex-Marine General. Nobody here who is likely to take any s— from Chavez.
    Mexico is indeed a tricky issue. Don’t forget Chavez came within a whisker of securing it for his sphere a couple of years ago. It’s the drugs that really turn the whole place into a tinderbox, along with immigration. On both of those issues Obama faces tremendous domestic pressure from the left. Further arming Calderon (which he should do) may well be a bridge too far, which he won’t dare to cross….
    Unless of course, Islamic terrorists (with the aid of Chavez) link up with the drug cartels, cross the border, and perpetrate some heinous act on American soil. Perhaps then he might be forced to reconsider.

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