Hugo Chávez’s provocative solidarity

Phil Gunson
13 June 2006

The newly-arrived foreign diplomat sighed and settled into his armchair. "Caracas is an ambassador-crusher", he said resignedly, admitting that he had been hoping for a European embassy. An ambassador generally spends three years in his or her post. In Venezuela the average stay is nearer two – the most striking exception being Cuban envoy Germán Sánchez Otero, who has been here for eleven years. The United States embassy, in contrast, has been through four heads of mission in the seven years Hugo Chávez has been in power.

The reason is clear: the man the US press loves to call a "leftist firebrand" practices a uniquely bruising and unconventional style of diplomacy. He has purged the Venezuelan foreign ministry of its professional diplomats, replacing them with revolutionary cadres, often possessed of a limited grasp of foreign affairs. "It's hard to find anyone there who even speaks English", complains an otherwise sympathetic European envoy. Their task is the relentless promotion of Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution", which is engaged in a process of expansionism not seen in Latin America since the 1960s, when his close ally, Fidel Castro, sponsored guerrilla movements across the continent. Castro, of course, lacked Venezuela's oil and was reigned in by his Soviet sponsors. But who, or what, will stop Chávez?

Also on Hugo Chàvez, Venezuela, and the "Bolivarian revolution" in openDemocracy:

Ivan Briscoe, "The invisible majority: Venezuela after the revolution"
(25 August 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "All change in Venezuela's revolution?"
(25 January 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(10 February 2006)

Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela"
(2 March 2006)

George Philip, "The politics of oil in Venezuela"
(24 May 2006)

Diplomacy, Chávez-style

In recent years, ambassadors from Mexico, Panama, Chile, Colombia (twice) and Peru (three times) have been recalled over serious diplomatic incidents. In February 2006, a US naval attaché was expelled amid spying allegations (although the case has never been mentioned since), and Washington retaliated by throwing out the number two at the Venezuelan embassy, Jenny Figueredo. Chávez decorated her and promoted her to deputy foreign minister. Relishing a fight, the Venezuelan leader is now practising on a continental scale a tactic he successfully developed at home in 2001-03 – seeking to provoke "the enemy" into rash responses that leave their target stronger than before, and that tend to eliminate the middle ground.

One of the earliest examples was Chávez's backing – in 2003-04 – of Bolivia's demand that Chile restore its outlet to the sea. But since the latter half of 2004, when he finally defeated a heterogeneous opposition coalition by winning a mid-term recall referendum, his oil-fuelled presence in other people's backyards has become steadily more inescapable.

His alliance with the victorious candidate in the December 2005 Bolivian elections – coca-growers' leader Evo Morales of the Movimiento al Socialismo dates back many years. But since Morales took power, Chávez has committed billions of Venezuelan petrodollars to the development of Bolivia (conditional, of course, on its backing for his broader ambitions). And much to the dismay of his putative ally, Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his hand was clearly visible in the May Day seizure by Morales of gas installations belonging to Brazilian state energy company Petrobras.

Even by Chávez's own standards, his interference in the two-round Peruvian elections of April-June 2006 was particularly blatant. Chávez openly declared his support for the nationalist former army officer Ollanta Humala, saying he "prayed to God" that his opponent – social democrat Alan García – would not win.

The Almighty, for some reason, chose not to humour the former army officer; but Chávez's supporters, though disappointed, were not downhearted. "The Peruvian oligarchy is very powerful", said Marco, a street trader. "But Ollanta won a lot of support among the poor." And columnist Vladimir Villegas – who, as Venezuela's ambassador to Mexico, was expelled for allegedly interfering in the election there – warned that, "those who are toasting Humala's electoral setback and breathing more easily", should not fool themselves. "The game ain't over 'til it's over", Villegas wrote.

The game will be over, the revolutionaries believe, once "the people" seize power from the "oligarchy", whether in an election or by more direct action, and establish an "anti-imperialist" government. "The people" refers exclusively to those, both at home and abroad, who support Chávez and his "21st-century socialism", which seeks nothing less than the removal of Latin America from the US sphere of influence. And if governments are reluctant to join the movement, Chávez bypasses them and addresses the opposition.

At a succession of "parallel summits" and meetings of the chavista international – known as the Bolivarian Congress of the Peoples – the Venezuelan leader has developed channels of communication with leftist and indigenous groups that flout conventional diplomacy. He has often (usually without hard evidence) been accused of financing their election campaigns, and even their street demonstrations.

In Nicaragua, where he supports the Sandinista (FSLN) candidate in November's election, Daniel Ortega, he recently supplied cheap fuel and fertilizer exclusively to Sandinista mayors. The Nicaraguan government claims the FSLN may be using the gift to finance the presidential campaign.

The logic of confrontation

Hugo Chávez believes in integration, but on his terms. That means an anti-Washington pact, built around Venezuelan/Bolivian control of the region's key energy sources and led by the Venezuelan president himself. The latter element goes down badly with many of his neighbours, particularly the Brazilians, who regard themselves as the natural leaders of the sub-continent. But even since the gas seizure, Brazilian criticism has been muted.

President Lula faces an election in October. He needs the support of the left, and – more importantly perhaps – he may calculate that the risk of confronting Bolivia and Venezuela in negotiations on a new energy deal is too great. Brazil's industrial heartland depends on Bolivian gas, Brazil is still doing good business in Venezuela, and Lula has no interest in joining a US-backed campaign against Chávez.

For the moment, the Organisation of American States too (which recently debated Peru's complaint of Venezuelan interference) seems powerless. Chávez is blatantly violating its charter, but he has taken care to distribute cheap oil and other forms of "solidarity" widely.

Peru's Alan García says he is not interested in leading an anti-Chávez front. In any event, he would need backing from the likes of Chile's Michelle Bachelet – whom Chávez is assiduously courting despite the fact that Chile has a free trade deal with the United States – and from Lula.

Despite his re-election in May 2006, Colombia's rightwing President Álvaro Uribe has little apparent appetite for a clash with his neighbour, whatever the Washington hawks might want. Mexico has begun, under Vicente Fox, to counter Venezuelan oil diplomacy. But a continuation of that policy requires victory in July's election by his anointed successor, Felipe Calderón, and that is by no means certain.

Chávez himself is seeking re-election for another six years in December, but the opposition seems unlikely to participate in what it regards as a rigged poll. If so, Venezuela will end up as the only country in the region (except Cuba) with a government not derived from competitive elections. The president argues that the domestic opposition is merely a surrogate for "the empire" (i.e. Washington), and that its withdrawal is part of a plot to destabilise his government.

The accusation could look a little thin, unless Chávez can present some hard evidence of United States aggression. His announcement, on 11 June, of a grand tour taking in Iran and North Korea (as well as "North Vietnam") looks like a transparent bid to provoke it. Having, somewhat belatedly, caught on to his methods, the US is proceeding with caution. But the hawks in Washington have limited patience. It could take a while, but some sort of showdown seems ultimately inevitable.

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