National Security Network

Democratic Setback in Venezuela Signals Need for New US Approach Region-Wide

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Report 17 February 2009

Diplomacy Diplomacy Cuba Embargo George Bush Hugo Chavez Venezuela


With the success of a referendum eliminating term limits this weekend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez scored a victory in his campaign to style himself the champion of the poor and as the leader of region-wide opposition to the United States in Latin America. Unfortunately, the approach of the Bush administration toward Latin America strengthened Chavez, not weakened him, in his drive for autocratic power in Venezuela and demagogic status beyond it. The Bush administration’s regional engagement was largely limited to a narrow trade agenda that failed to advance and ignored the socio-economic concerns of the continent, while tightening the unpopular and to most, irrelevant embargo against Cuba. Unaddressed economic hardships and President Bush’s plummeting popularity created space for Chavez to gain prestige throughout the region by vigorously opposing the United States. A new approach to the region can begin with building a new partnership with rising democratic powers such as Brazil, expanding engagement toward the region to address a broader swath of issues, and taking symbolic concerns seriously – above all, with a start at dismantling many of the restrictive elements of the Cold War-era embargo against Cuba.

Chavez’s referendum victory is a serious blow to democracy in Venezuela. “President Hugo Chavez is celebrating victory in a referendum to end term limits for elected officials,” explained the VOA after Chávez scored a “decisive win, with a near 10-point margin,” which “hands him the prospect of unlimited rule.” Just fourteen months ago, voters decided to keep term limits in place; this reversal has been called a victory for Mr. Chavez, who “urged people to support the measure to give him more time in office to carry out his socialist-inspired reforms. He said that everyone who voted in favor of the measure also voted in favor of socialism.” The Wall Street Journal explains “the victory is [also] a blow to the fragmented democratic opposition, which had hoped that the country's economic hardships -- including inflation at 35% and rising -- would turn more voters against Mr. Chávez's ‘revolution.’” The New York Times writes that only “time will tell if Mr. Chávez will moderate his platform and reach out to the opposition he has so often derided. But his capacity to evolve while in power is undisputed, speaking to the political longevity and instincts that were mulled over with a mix of admiration, bewilderment and fear by Venezuelans on the streets of this capital city.” A few independent newspapers have contributed “criticism of his consolidation of power — in the judiciary, the National Assembly, the federal bureaucracy — [which] has been loud and persistent.” Some even “reprinted an old warning by Venezuela’s founding father, Simón Bolívar: ‘Nothing is as dangerous as allowing the same citizen to remain in power for a long time.’” [VOA, 2/16/09. WS Journal, 2/17/09. CS Monitor, 2/17/09. VOA, 2/16/09. NY Times, 2/16/09.]

Chavez victory highlights consequences of 8 years of failed Bush policies toward Latin America.  During the 2000 Presidential campaign, George W. Bush vowed to focus on Latin America, pledging: “I will look South, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency.”  Unfortunately, the President did not match his campaign promise with action, something which leaders like Chavez have exploited for their political gain.  In 2002, a failed coup attempt in Venezuela allowed Chavez the opportunity to allege U.S. involvement, allegations which, though disputed, soured opinion toward the U.S.  Former Clinton administration official Arturo Valenzuela then commented: “Unfortunately, the Bush administration did not seem to understand what was at stake in Venezuela. The United States now risks losing much of the considerable moral and political leadership it had rightly won over the last decade as the nations of the Americas sought to establish the fundamental principle that the problems of democracy are solved in democracy.”  The Administration’s policies toward Cuba have been equally damaging.  In 2004, Bush added restrictions on remittances and travel to the embargo against Cuba, changes which drew strong criticism both domestically and in the region.  The Bush administration’s policies toward Venezuela and Cuba were part of broader pattern of neglect. At the 2005 Summit of Americas, Latin America heads of state met him with complaints about “his administration’s neglect of and indifference to the region for five years.” Anti-Americanism in the region has festered, and the U.S. has lost trade ground to China and Europe.  Sebastian Edwards, a UCLA professor and former Latin America economist at the World Bank summed up the Bush record: “The Bush administration has virtually no legacy in Latin America.”  Riordan Roett, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies shared Edwards’ assessment, saying “Certainly, there is no consistent pattern of interest or concern in the administration for Latin America.”  [President Bush, 8/25/00. Reuters, 4/16/02. Washington Post, 9/24/08. NPR, 11/5/05. NY Times, 11/2/05. LA Times, 11/13/08. McClatchy, 3/1/08]

Obama administration must move toward a new framework for engaging Latin America.  With the change in Administration, there is an opportunity for the U.S. to alter course in Latin America, by signaling its willingness to engage, and by taking concrete steps that move beyond the shallow rhetoric that has marked the last 8 years of U.S. policy. As CSIS expert Johanna Mendelson Forman observed, any policy with individual countries like Venezuela, Cuba or Brazil, must be integrated within “greater U.S. engagement in the rest of the hemisphere as partners and neighbors.”  Forman added that “[t]here is no time to waste as we approach the President Obama’s first encounter with regional leaders in April when the Summit of the Americas takes place in Trinidad and Tobago.” The region attaches great symbolic importance to an early step on Cuba policy, such as repealing travel restrictions, a shift which according to foreign policy experts Lawrence Wilkerson and Patrick Doherty, “not only restores Americans' constitutional rights,” but will unleash “the greatest ambassadors of democracy and free markets, the American people.”  The U.S. can also reach out to countries like Brazil, a country respected within the region, which has also demonstrated its capacity for global leadership.  Brazilian President Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, in addition to calling for reform of U.S. policy toward Cuba, recently expressed his desire for President Obama to improve relations: “[h]ere in Brazil we will certainly maintain the good policy we have towards the United States. I think if he wants to, Obama can improve the bilateral relations.”  Improvements in bilateral relations must be part of a broader framework of engagement.  [Lawrence Wilkerson & Patrick Doherty, 12/12/08. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, 1/20/09. Johanna Mendelson Forman, CSIS, 2/17/09]

What We’re Reading

The Pakistani government made a truce with the Taliban in Swat province, agreeing to institute Islamic law in Swat, near the Afghanistan border and a Taliban hot-bed, in exchange for a cease-fire.

Secretary of State Clinton, in Japan, warns North Korea against their threatened missile test.

The United Nations says Afghan civilian casualties rose by almost 40% in 2008.  The newest U.S. troops in Afghanistan find themselves in a dangerous area near Kabul.

Former MI5 chief Dame Stella Rimington criticized the British government for exploiting fears of terrorism to restrict rights, calling today’s Britain a “police state.”

The trial of Khmer Rouge leader, Kaing Guek Eav, accused of murdering and torturing over 15,000 inmates at a prison camp, begins today in Phnom Penh, 30 years after the fall of the regime.

Minibus bombs killed eight Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad.  Bombs in Afghanistan killed Taliban commander Maulavi Ghulam Dastagir.

The German foreign minister meets with Iraqi officials, continuing Iraq’s efforts to improve ties with Europe.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev replaced four Russian governors in areas susceptible to social unrest due to the financial crisis.

The return of jobless migrants to the countryside strains China.  China agreed to lend art to a museum in Taiwan.

Egypt cracks down on smuggling tunnels in Gaza.

Darfur’s most active rebel group signed a peace agreement, opening the door to broader peace negotiations.

Commentary of the Day

The Wall Street Journal looks at the importance of Afghanistan/Pakistan to the Obama administration and the Left’s expectations for his plans, quoting the National Security Network.

Joe Klein responds to the news of the Pakistani government’s truce with the Taliban in Swat province.

Selig S. Harrison of the Center for International Policy examines how living with a nuclear North Korea could be better than continuing to push for complete disarmament.

Senator John Rockefeller, outgoing Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, reflects on the last 8 years, and opportunities for intelligence reform.