Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: questions of leadership

Julia Buxton
29 September 2008

The Venezuelan government has a history of following unanticipated trajectories. During his decade in power, President Hugo Chávez has shifted from citing Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens respectively as a role model and influence to advocating a socialist transformation driven by the twin motors of the state and popular participation. 

Julia Buxton is senior research fellow in the department of peace studies, Bradford University. Her work includes The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela (Ashgate, 2001)

Also by Julia Buxton in openDemocracy:
"The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it" (4 May 2007)The journey from "third-way socialism" to "socialism of the 21st century", has, like any process of major political change, been characterised by setbacks and advances. The advances have included strong improvements in wealth distribution, welfare provision and popular participation in policy and decision making. Major social and political transformation has been achieved democratically, with the electorate mandating the changes pursued in a constant cycle of elections and referenda.

But more recently it has felt like the setbacks are beginning to stack up. The president's tendency to make sudden and apparently arbitrary decisions and the failure to pay sufficient attention to domestic political challenges are beginning to erode the prospects for consolidation of the progressive achievements made to date. In this context, Chávez's recent and seemingly unilateral decision to expel the US ambassador to Venezuela - which was followed by the deportation of two senior Human Rights Watch employees - raises troubling questions about current strategy and direction. 

Caracas's 9/11 moment

Chávez chose the symbolic date of 11 September to expel US ambassador Patrick Duddy. It was a surprise announcement, not least because Duddy has been one of the most constructive and least controversial of recent US ambassadorial appointments to Venezuela. The expulsion, announced by Chávez at a late-night rally of government supporters, was undertaken as an act of solidarity with the decision taken the previous day by Chávez's Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales to expel the US ambassador in La Paz, Philip Goldberg. Morales had accused Goldberg of channelling financial and political support to a violent and racist secessionist movement in the resource-rich eastern departments of the country (see Justin Vogler, "Bolivia nears the precipice", 17 September 2008).

Regional solidarity has been a constant principle of the Bolivarian revolution. Chávez's domestic and foreign supporters have rallied around the decision, calling it a principled stand against United States imperialism and anti-democratic activities in the hemisphere. In this, Chávez feels strong sympathy for Morales, since Venezuela itself has been on the receiving end of ruthless and cynical efforts by the George W Bush administration to derail legitimate national authorities (see Eva Golinger, The Chávez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela (Olive Branch Press, 2006).

Through this act of solidarity, Chávez was sending a clear message that malign interventions will be challenged. But in this instance, Chávez's method undermined the message, and may have deleterious repercussions for his administration and regional standing.

A diplomatic blowback

What is happening in Venezuela? openDemocracy's many articles on the Hugo Chávez years offer detailed, independent analysis and argument in the interests of informed understanding. They include:

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

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

Jonah Gindin & William I Robinson, "The United States, Venezuela, and "democracy promotion" (4 August 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)

Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity" (14 June 2006

Phil Gunson, "Bolivarian myths and legends" (1 December 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez at his peak" (28 March 2007 )

Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez: yo, el supremo" (13 April 2007)

Julia Buxton, "The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it" (4 May 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)

Stephanie Blankenburg, "Venezuela: a complicated referendum" (4 December 2007)

Adam Isacson, "The Colombia - Venezuela - Ecuador tangle" (17 March 2008)The expulsion of Duddy triggered the inevitable US decision to expel the long-serving Venezuelan envoy to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera. Chávez anticipated this by recalling Alvarez and stating that Venezuela will not be seeking ambassadorial representation in the US until the country is run by a government respectful of Venezuela. He also threatened to cut oil exports to the US in the event of continued US aggression.

This leaves Venezuela without senior level diplomatic representation in a country on which it has enormous commercial dependence. Despite Chávez's anti-US and anti-imperialist rhetoric, trade with the US has intensified, exceeding $50 billion in 2007 and increasing by 72% since 2004.  Oil accounts for the bulk of this commercial exchange, with the US importing a strategically important 13%-15% of its domestic oil requirements from Venezuela. In this respect Chávez's threat to cut oil exports is hollow: the US is the only market for Venezuela's heavy crude mix, and Venezuela's refining capacities are concentrated in the US. The commercial leverage lies with the US; if Washington  were to impose an embargo on Venezuelan oil imports, the Chávez administration would be in dire straits. 

The political aspects of this diplomatic fallout are also significant. Alvarez and his team have built a strong network of supporters in the African-American, Native-American and progressive academic and activist communities. This has been underpinned by the successful discounted heating-fuel programme, sponsorship of cultural activities, support for academic conferences and bridge-building to US Congressional representatives. This outreach work has transformed perceptions of Venezuela among the grassroots of US society and has helped position Venezuela for a more amicable and stable relationship with the US in the event of a Barack Obama victory in November's presidential election.

The expulsion of Alvarez means that the traction behind these activities - and the opportunity to engage with the incoming team of US officials - may now be lost. In the event of a John McCain victory, the absence of ambassadorial representation will leave Venezuela ill-positioned to defend itself from an increase in political hostilities or new commercial tensions. But is this what Chávez indeed wants? A common question is the extent to which Chávez needs to recast the imperialist threat as his nemesis George W Bush reaches the end of his term. 

Alvarez is a loss as he was one of a small number of talented, energetic Venezuelan diplomats. The shift from career diplomacy to political appointments under Chávez has left Venezuela bereft of skilled personnel to draw upon, despite Chávez's enormously ambitious and complex foreign-policy agenda. The quality of Venezuela's representation overseas has suffered as a result, while reliance on informal solidarity networks to defend the government and its programs has increased. The US will now be added to the list of countries where this is the case.  

That Alvarez does not appear to have been consulted about the decision to expel Duddy reflects the narrowing of input into foreign-policy strategy within the Chávez government. It also raises questions about the extent to which the diminished and overworked team of senior foreign-policy officials are in touch with Venezuela's national interests and Venezuelan sentiments.

It is open to question how far Chávez will be able to carry the Venezuelan electorate forward with him as he shifts from an initially popular, anti-Bush critique, to this more generalised anti-US rhetoric. Moreover, this recent radicalisation follows the defeat of Chávez's constitutional-reform referendum in December 2007 (see Stephanie Blankenburg, "Venezuela: a complicated referendum", 4 Devember 2007). It goes against the clear message expressed by Venezuelan voters that they want less rhetoric, less radicalism and more focus on day-to-day policy issues.

In this context, this new assertive foreign-policy stance is a distraction from the need to focus on and deliver domestic policy improvements, particularly in light of the approaching regional elections in November 2008 and amid mounting evidence of limited progress in monitoring, assessing and evaluating the impact of major and costly social and investment projects. The government may have dedicated billions of its oil-export revenue windfall to welfare and infrastructure, but issues of sustainability and effective targeting are now at the fore and require attention.   

A mix of messages

At the regional level, Hugo Chávez may have squandered the positive impacts of the demonstration of solidarity with Bolivia by confusing his message. The announcement of the Duddy expulsion came at the same time as revelations of an alleged coup conspiracy within Venezuela - circulated through the unlikely medium of a late-night pro-government television programme. The timing of the plot revelations and the government's manner of detailing an apparently serious threat to national security, have fuelled cynicism about the veracity of the conspiracy.

While attention should have been focused on a serious, disturbing sequence of events in Bolivia, Chávez focused attention back to Venezuela, his own domestic political opponents and the issue of his government's relations with the US. Chávez could have constructed a serious dialogue around the threats to peaceful democratic change in the region; instead he opted to militarise the discourse, offering to send Venezuelan troops to Bolivia, denouncing the commander-in-chief of the Bolivian armed forces and pointing to Russian military support to back up his new aggressive posture vis-a-vis the US. Chávez's bellicose stance angered regional neighbours, elicited only muted support from Cuba and contributed to hemispheric discord at a time when the focus of diplomatic action was the crafting of a united hemispheric front.

Any proper examination of the Chávez government's record on narcotic drug interdiction, democratic development and poverty-reduction reveals positive lessons and experiences, as well as highlighting the shocking levels of media disinformation that have pervaded foreign coverage of the country. But this new assertive strategy, premised on expulsions and deportations, will limit the capacity of the government to advance its well-grounded critiques as well as marginalising Venezuela from a progressive debate that Chávez was significant in initiating.  

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