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As President Hugo Chavez adeptly leverages Venezuela’s oil wealth to forge an array of regional alliances that leave the United States out in the cold, U.S. Venezuela tensions are heating up. Boosted by the rising prices of oil and the deepening regional anger over U.S. imperial arrogance, Chavez has proved able not only to construct a counter-hegemonic constituency in Venezuela among the country’s poor majority but also to piece together a regional network that is challenging U.S. political and economic dominance. Uncle Sam is becoming the odd man out in the hemisphere claimed as U.S. domain since the early 19 th century.
What is to be done? As Chavez’s star has risen and as the U.S. stars and stripes increasingly become subject to derision, the Bush administration finds itself at a loss when attempting to stem the anti-imperial tide. All its attempts to persuade or dissuade, enforce, or manipulate have backfired.
Meanwhile, President Chavez-the democratically elected president whom TV evangelist Pat Robertson said the U.S. "covert operatives" should "take out"-has mounted an impressive public diplomacy campaign backed by petrodollars that underwrite ambitious social and economic development projects. Chavez is stirring hopes among Latin Americans and Caribbean people that they can break free from the yoke of U.S. power.
Pat Robertson’s observations that assassinating Chavez would be a cheaper foreign policy option than launching another $200 billion war and that such an action could be done without disrupting Venezuelan oil exports were not the ravings of a know-nothing fundamentalist preacher. Rather, they were the opinions of a politically powerful televangelist who over the past three decades has helped forge the Republican Party’s strongest electoral constituency. Prior to the 2004 presidential election, Robertson heartily endorsed Bush, saying: "I believe the blessing of heaven is upon him."
What’s more, Robertson’s political convictions-including his crucial leadership in supporting the Reagan administration’s vengeful rollback policies in Central America, his fire-and-brimstone raging against the softliners of the State Department, and his essential role in aligning the Religious Right with hardline Zionists-have proved well within the mainstream politics of the ascendant right of the Republican Party.
The State Department quickly dismissed Robertson’s advice as "inappropriate."
Clearly, Robertson’s remarks were "inappropriate." But treating this as another media event, with accusations, disavowals, and recriminations, misses the opportunity that Robertson has afforded.
What is an appropriate response to the new Bolivarian spirit of Hugo Chavez that the Bush administration and regional elites find so disconcerting?
If the United States hopes to maintain productive diplomatic and economic relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, it would do well to consider what should be done differently.
The U.S. government-and the U.S. public-would do well to use the Robertson brouhaha to draw up a list of what are inappropriate policies and remarks, while at the same time outlining more appropriate measures.
Appropriate Responses to Chavez
Get in the Bolivarian spirit by encouraging intraregional alliances that unify the Latin American and Caribbean nations and breakdown longstanding economic, border, and cultural tensions. It is in the best interests of the United States to have a Latin American region that seeks collectively to address its common problems. Chavez may be grandstanding, but he is on the money with much of his political rhetoric. What’s more, he is putting money where his mouth is. Independence, self-reliance, and neighborhood problem-solving are core U.S. attributes. Rather than seeing these as a threat in Latin America, we should applaud and encourage these efforts.
Chavez is right to evoke the politics of independence and unity heralded by Simon Bolivar. For centuries, the region has been mired in dependency and self-defeating nationalism. Whether his Bolivarian rhetoric is opportunistic or populist in the worst sense is not the issue. What Washington needs to understand is that this rhetoric resonates throughout the region because the time is right for a new approach-just as it was right in the early 1800s when Bolivar dreamed, fought, and agonized in his quest to bring political independence and unity to South America.
Bolivar is not part of the U.S. legacy of Latin American relations. Yet with Franklin D. Roosevelt we have our own legendary figure whose policies can point the way toward more constructive U.S.-Latin American relations.
Long past its own eras of fighting for independence and unity, the United States in the late 1930s and 1940s sought to reconcile its status as a regional hegemon with the best of its values. With his good neighbor policy, FDR broke with the politics of imperialism and offered a new framework for hemispheric politics-emphasizing self-determination, mutually beneficial trade, annual political forums, and cooperation.
At the time, the Good Neighbor Policy was a radical breakthrough that succeeded in washing away much of the distrust and condescension that had previously prevailed in North-South relations. A revival of the Rooseveltian, good neighbor spirit would be just as salutary today.
A good neighbor ethic means that the U.S. government wouldn’t interfere in the internal politics of its hemispheric neighbors, as much as it disagreed with their politics and behavior-as long as there were no direct threats to our country. Contrary to what Robertson and other administration-associated ideologues would have us believe, the Chavez government is not exporting Muslim terrorism, communism, or any other politics that threaten life in the United States.
With regard to the new trends in Latin America, self-determination should be the operative value that guides U.S. foreign policy rather than an insistence on a U.S.-determined course of political economics. Diplomacy rather than political assassination, kidnapping, coups, or political aid to Chavez opponents is the only appropriate U.S. foreign policy.
Just as Chavez backs his explosive rhetoric with his ambitious social projects, the United States would do well for Latin America-and for itself-if it took some positive steps to demonstrate its commitment to development and democracy. The type of social projects and economic integration spearheaded by the Venezuelan government deserve the backing of the U.S. government and people.
As is, it appears that Washington stands against literacy, healthcare, and agrarian reform programs. As is, it appears that Washington stands against the type of integration in which one economically privileged nation-in this case Venezuela with its wealth of oil-shares with its neighbors on favorable terms.
Yes, such efforts redound to the credit of Chavez, and to his associate Fidel Castro; and yes, it is about politics and personalities as much or more than about altruism. But they would also redound to the credit of the United States if we backed such appealing initiatives rather than dismissing them or vainly seeking to discredit them.
Inappropriate Responses to Chavez
Somehow, U.S. officials who have traveled this year to Latin America to try to shore up deteriorating relations, such as Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Southcom Bantz Craddock, don’t get it. It is not a language problem, but an ideological one.
U.S. actions speak even louder about U.S. intent than does its flatulent rhetoric. Obviously inappropriate actions include support for coups against foreign leaders, support for death squads and assassinations, continuing cover-up of past U.S. involvement in such operations, backing militarization over diplomacy and negotiations, and seeking to manipulate or otherwise influence elections.
If Washington wants to establish itself as a respected hemispheric leader, and to counter or balance the rapidly increasing influence of Chavez, it should begin acknowledging as counterproductive and definitively inappropriate a wide range of other policies.
The U.S. conception of economic integration is blatantly U.S.-centric. Critics both inside and outside the United States have repeatedly noted that Washington’s idea of free trade is one-sided: when U.S. producers or investors are adversely affected, then protectionism rather than free trade rules. But this criticism bears repetition, especially since the Bush administration continues down the same path with the various regional and bilateral free trade accords it is currently pushing.
The reason that the United States has any success at all with such a trade strategy is that it is a superpower with a mighty market. A "just say ‘no’" response by Latin American and Caribbean nations is not plausible given current hemispheric asymmetries and in the absence of countervailing regional trade accords.
The size and proximity of the U.S. market-the largest in the world-are not the only draws. Particularly in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Andes, national economies have become dependent on the U.S. market because of trade preferences proffered by Washington-in part related to counterinsurgency and drug war strategies, and in part related to a globalization strategy to create a U.S.-controlled regional trade bloc.
The free trade deals offered these countries are not free at all. If Andean countries decide to reject U.S. free trade packages, then the United States will allow the trade preferences that benefit Latin American export sectors to expire. It is inappropriate and hypocritical for the United States to preach free trade but then threaten to resurrect trade barriers if these small trading partners do not sign on the dotted line of U.S.-constructed free trade "agreements."
In contrast, Venezuela is offering the region highly preferential deals for oil while the Bush administration hypocritically insists that small countries like Bolivia and Ecuador play on a "level playing field" with the United States.
Other policies that deserve to be condemned as inappropriate are those that cut off aid if a country refuses to guarantee impunity for U.S. troops and drug control agents, retaliate when Latin American neighbors refuse to echo the U.S. position at the United Nations, or use debt relief as a bargaining chip to force poor nations to adopt neoliberal policy reforms.
Such policies don’t incite the media attention that Robertson garnered for his broadcasting network and his radical views. But they are more contemptible because they define the reality of what is considered an appropriate U.S. foreign policy toward the region.
TOM BARRY is policy director of the International Relations Center (IRC), online at www.irc-online.org, and an associate of the IRC Americas Program.