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President Obama went too far in throwing gratuitous insults at President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela on Friday in an interview in Miami. By doing so, he not only offended the majority of Venezuelans, who voted to re-elect their president on October 7, but even many who did not. Chávez is fighting for his life, recovering from a difficult cancer operation; in Latin America, as in most of the world, this wholly unnecessary vilification of Chávez by Obama is a breach not only of diplomatic protocol but also of ordinary standards of civility.
Perhaps even more importantly, Obama’s ill-timed aspersions sent an unpleasant message to the rest of the region. While Obama can get away with anything in the major media outlets, you can be sure that his remarks were noticed by the presidents and foreign ministries of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and others. The message was clear: Expect four more years of the same failed Cold War policies toward Latin America that President George W. Bush championed and Obama continued in his first term.
These presidents see Chávez as a close friend and ally, someone who has helped them and the region; like millions of Venezuelans they are praying for his recovery. They also see Washington as responsible for the bad relations between the U.S. and Venezuela (as well as the hemisphere generally), and these unfortunate remarks are additional confirmation. At the 2012 Summit of the Americas, Obama found himself as isolated as George W. Bush was at the notorious 2005 summit. It was a sea change from the 2009 Summit, where everyone – including Chávez – greeted Obama warmly and saw in him the potential for a new era of U.S.-Latin American relations.
To these governments, Obama’s broadsides about Chávez’s “authoritarian policies” and “suppression of dissent” have a bad smell, even ignoring the offensive timing. Venezuela just had an election in which the opposition, which has most of the income and wealth of the country, as well as most of the media, mobilized millions of voters. The turnout was 81 percent of registered voters, with about 97 percent of the voting-age population registered. The government did not “suppress dissent,” nor has it done so in other elections; or even when the dissenters shut down the oil industry and crippled the economy in 2002-2003 – actions that would have been illegal and blocked by the force of the state in the United States. Peaceful protestors in Venezuela are far less likely to get beaten or tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets, by security forces, than they are in Spain, and probably most other democracies.
Yes, there have been abuses of authority in Venezuela, as in all of the hemisphere — as President Obama should know. It was Obama who defended the imprisonment without trial for more than two-and-a-half years, and abuse in custody, of Bradley Manning, which was condemned by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture. It is Obama who has refused to grant freedom to Native American activist Leonard Peltier, widely seen throughout the world as a political prisoner, now in a U.S. prison for 37 years. It is Obama who claims the right, and has used it, to kill American citizens without arrest or trial.
Venezuela is a middle-income country where the rule of law is relatively weak, as is the state generally (hence the absurdity of calling it “authoritarian”). But compared with other countries of its income level, it does not stand out for anything in the realm of human rights abuses. Certainly there is nothing in Venezuela comparable to the abuses by Washington allies such as Mexico or Honduras – where candidates for political office, opposition activists, and journalists are regularly murdered. And much of the scholarly research on Venezuela under Chávez shows that it is more democratic and has more civil liberties than ever before in its own history.
By contrast, we in the United States are not doing so well by comparison to our own history and income level. We have suffered a serious loss of civil liberties under the administrations of George W. Bush and President Obama. And of course if we count the victims of U.S. crimes abroad – the civilians and children killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example – President Obama, the one with the “kill list,” has little standing to criticize almost any foreign president.
“We would want to see a strong relationship between our two countries, but we’re not going to change policies that prioritize making sure that there’s freedom in Venezuela,” Obama said, according to the Associated Press.
I can’t think of anyone who believes that U.S policy in Venezuela, from Washington’s involvement in the 2002 military coup to continued funding today for Venezuelan opposition groups, has anything to do with promoting “freedom.” This was just another public insult.
The Venezuelan government responded angrily to the remarks. But perhaps they would be more forgiving if they knew just how little President Obama, who never set foot in Latin America before he was president, knows about Venezuela or the region.
When President Obama met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff he said:
“It gives me an opportunity as well to remark on the extraordinary progress that Brazil has made under the leadership of President Rousseff and her predecessor, President Lula, moving from dictatorship to democracy …”
So, if Obama (and his staff) didn’t even know that Brazil’s dictatorship came to an end more than a decade before Lula was elected in 2002, how can he be expected to know anything about Venezuela? I mean, Brazil is a big country, bigger than the continental U.S. and the sixth largest economy in the world.
Obama fired his National Security Adviser for Latin America after the debacle at the 2012 Summit. He should fire the hack who fed him the insults for his Miami interview and the incompetent slob who made him embarrass himself in front of the President of Brazil. Then he can clean out some of the 1950s Cold Warriors from the State Department. It’s fine if he’s not interested in Latin America – better for the region and the world – but he and his administration are creating a lot of unnecessary hostility.
Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.
This essay originally appeared in Al Jazeera.