After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
13 March 2007

The "Bolivarian revolution" led by President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is a particular mixture of nationalism, populism, militarism, and socialism. His and his supporters' protests against President George W Bush's visit to Latin America from 8-14 March 2007 emphasise both the political energy of the phenomenon and the challenge it poses to Washington's efforts to re-establish its own influence in the region. It is clear by now that the United States has four broad options in addressing the phenomenon.

The first is to search for its dissolution through a new coup d'état. The failed experience of the civil-military rebellion in April 2002 may repeat itself with the possibility of radicalising even further the Bolivarian revolutionary model and polarising the country up to a point of provoking, as in Iraq, a civil war.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is profesor at Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98.

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal"
(30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America"
(29 November 2006)

"Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle "
(9 February 2007)

"A Latin American’s memo to Bush"
(9 March 2007)

The second option is to design a policy of containment towards Caracas. That will imply isolating Chávez and coercing Venezuela through a variety of diplomatic, psychological, and economic initiatives, both regionally and globally.

The third way is an even more aggressive strategy: roll back his revolution by military means. These two last options may be easy to elaborate but difficult to apply. On the one hand, Washington's foreign and security policy is to focus on the middle east, central Asia and al-Qaida, to the extent that it is hard to imagine any coherent, consensual strategy to deal with Caracas and its symbolic radical message for Latin America.

On the other hand, Venezuela is no small country: its key resource is not soy but oil. No neighbouring nation - neither the right-wing government of Álvaro Uribe in Colombia nor the newly pro-American Alan García in Peru - is interested in sponsoring Venezuelan "freedom fighters" or encircling Caracas militarily. In general, Latin American governments have established pragmatic relations with Venezuela: they want to have access to its energy and market instead of confronting Chávez ideologically. In brief, the United States, more than Venezuela, is becoming the isolated party in the region with regard to the "Chávez question".

This is where the fourth option enters, one that has not been attempted. It is complex and demands a long-term perspective. Its essence is a prudent and flexible combination of coexistence, moderation and pressure together with a deepening of democracy. The leading role should be in the hands of Latin America - basically a five-part, concerted diplomacy involving Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and (discreetly) Cuba, who together can agree upon a realistic strategy regarding Venezuela which is accepted by Washington does not alienate Caracas. A mixture of clear incentives and categorical restraints - political carrots, diplomatic sticks and economic gestures - should be designed over a lengthy period of time both through this informal "pentagonal" mechanism and existing institutions such as the Organisation of American States and Mercosur.

This would entail restraint in both Caracas and Washington. Hugo Chávez can implement as many domestic changes as he is able to attain, within a democratic, pluralistic, peaceful framework; but he should stop aggressively promoting its project abroad. He can practice an autonomous foreign policy, but he must not be allowed to stimulate a rehearsal of the cold war in the region. He is free to seek his country's best security, but he should not do by creating an arms race in south America or flirting with nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, Washington should concentrate on democratic strengthening, diplomatic dialogue and political reform in the area - in the end the only antidotes against authoritarianism, failed states, and violent upheavals. Venezuelans should sense that they are surrounded by strong and prosperous democracies. Free-trade agreements are not a substitute for bold and sensible political initiatives to deal with the critical issues in the hemisphere.

The United States is still in a position to influence change in the Americas. But that can be attained only with the contribution of Latin American countries, and not against the will of its people.

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