A wise comment made by Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired from the United States supreme court in 2006, has a certain relevance to Washington's dilemma over its attitude to Nicolás Maduro, the new president of Venezuela. The former judge, speaking to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, had been asked about the court's role in the notorious controversy in 2000 when the result of the presidential election depended on the result in Florida.
O'Connor recalled that the court "took the case and decided it at a time when it was still a big election issue…Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’” She went on: “Obviously the court did reach a decision and thought it had to reach a decision..it turned out the election authorities in Florida hadn’t done a real good job there and kind of messed it up. And probably the supreme court added to the problem at the end of the day” (see "O'Connor question's court's decision to take on Bush v. Gore", Chicago Tribune, 27 April 2013).
Now, Washington - this time in the form of the Barack Obama administration - is being called on to take a stance on another close presidential election, the one in Venezuela held on 14 April, six weeks after the death of Hugo Chávez on 5 March. In the vote, Chávez's nominated successor Nicolás Maduro defeated the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by a tight margin of 1.6%. This contested result in an extremely polarised country faces the United States with an important choice: is it willing to recognise the legitimacy of the result (and thus join all Latin America), or is it still inclined to fuel Venezuela's volatility and instability?
The answer is poised. Washington may follow its cold-war pattern and choose among some combination of hardline containment, political rollback, and attempted regime change. But all these options would be bad - for Venezuelans, for Latin Americans, and even for the US's long-term interests in both Venezuela and the region.
Washington has a number of other potential initiatives at its disposal. It could engage in some kind of symbolic sanction in response to the absence of an overall vote recount. It could adopt a policy of soft pressure and growing encirclement of Venezuela, while waiting for an extended and uncontrolled crisis. Or it could call openly for a sort of “Venezuelan spring” to be led by Capriles.
None of these three options is realistic, however. Each would exacerbate the country's internal turmoil, perhaps even provoking a civil war in Venezuela with likely spillover effects in Latin America. The chavista side would depict the domestic opposition to Maduro even more strongly as puppets of Washington; and this would make even harder the creation of a legitimate challenge to Venezuela's so-called "21st century socialist revolution".
A sound strategy
The only reasonable policy for all the parties involved - in Venezuela, in the region and the United States - is to develop a US-Latin American collaborative strategy oriented towards a peaceful transition in Venezuela. This should be designed to aid and not assail the country. It may involve the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina. All have key interests in Venezuela, albeit with different intensity and scope; but these could be managed positively, for neither Washington nor Latin America needs a source of disorder, polarisation, and fragmentation in the Americas. A sound strategy of this kind can be implemented if dogmatism and parochialism are sidelined.
The key to a successful political evolution in Venezuela is to avoid extremism; stimulate bargaining among different, key domestic actors; help achieve effective and verifiable compromises; contribute to democratic strengthening; and avoid calls on the military to “do something”. Much of this can be embodied in a mixture of incentives and restraints, planned over a lengthy period of time.
To a large extent this reasonable strategy depends on Washington and the recognition that real consultation with Latin America is not only feasible but also urgently necessary.
Over six decades ago, on 29 March 1950, George F Kennan - then counselor of the US secretary of of state, Dean Acheson - sent a long memorandum to his boss. Near the end of the document, Kennan asserted: "It is important for us to keep before ourselves and the Latin American peoples at all times the reality of the thesis that we are a great power; that we are by and large much less in need of them than they are in need of us; that we are entirely prepared to leave to themselves those who evince no particular desire for the form of collaboration that we have to offer, that the danger of a failure to exhaust the possibilities of our mutual relationship is always greater to them than to us; that we can afford to wait, patiently and good naturedly; and that we are more concerned to be respected than to be liked or understood".
This type of argument and approach was congruent with the US's actual hegemony with regard to the region at the beginning of the cold war. Its underlying logic as a mode of thinking (and acting) is today obsolete. Inter-American relations now demand a fresh course. How Washington handles President Maduro's election will reveal either a newfound maturity or the persistence of hegemonic presumption vis-á-vis Latin America.