Venezuela’s International Role: Provider or Gadfly?

Looking at Foreign Policy in Context




by | Sep 18, 2008

Mural depicts Hugo Chávez as the leader of Latin American unity., with flags from Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia below him.

Mural depicts Hugo Chávez as the leader of Latin American unity. Photo by Luis Brito

On September 20, 2006, a bulky, round-headed man climbed the steps to the speakers’ rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York. For a few seconds he glared grimly at the audience and sniffed the air before speaking.

“It still smells of sulphur here”, said Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, crossing himself. “That’s because the devil stood here yesterday.” He explained that the devil was one George W. Bush, head of an evil empire out to conquer, torment and exploit the weaker nations. But the world’s people—presumably with Venezuela at their head—would react and join forces to defeat the empire and replace its “uni-polar” hegemony with a “democratic, multi-polar” international order.

At the same time, shipments of Venezuelan oil to the United States proceeded as smoothly as ever. With 1.3 million barrels a day, Venezuela provides 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, ranking fourth among U.S. foreign suppliers. Oil accounts for 80 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings and two-thirds of the oil exports go to the United States which, furthermore, is by far the country’s main provider of imported goods, services and technology. Thus, Venezuela is enormously dependent on the United States, and the United States to a lesser degree on Venezuela. Chávez has threatened to “cut off” the oil supply to the “empire” and re-direct it to China, but no one takes this seriously, least of all the Chinese who have only a limited use for Venezuelan oil.

Some Latin American leaders pointed out the obvious contradiction between aggressive rhetoric and heavy dependence on the U.S. market after Chávez chided them for their “subservience” to the “empire.”

Venezuelan Foreign Policy Before Chávez

Venezuela (located at the northernmost tip of South America, with an area of 352,144 square miles and a present population of nearly 27 million) was one of the poorer provinces of the Spanish colonial empire (1498-1810), with a relatively mobile social structure open to liberal ideas arriving from abroad. Under the leadership of the Liberator Simón Bolivar, Venezuelans played a distinguished role in the emancipation and independent reconstruction of Hispanic America (1810-1830).

But that moment of glory was followed by a century of servitude. Political independence did not bring significant social and economic change, and the country was ruled by military strongmen in alliance with a landed and money-lending oligarchy. Sinking coffee prices and the effects of civil wars brought Venezuela into heavy foreign debt. At the hands of British and other European creditors, the nation suffered diplomatic humiliation, naval blockades and territorial losses. At the turn of the century the United States replaced Britain as the nation’s main foreign protector and privileged trade partner. This change coincided with the beginning of the oil extraction industry, turning Venezuela from a coffee producer into a petroleum exporter and enabling it to settle her foreign debt.

In 1936 Venezuela entered its age of modernization, advancing toward democratic government. The Second World War turned the country into a reliable oil supplier and political partner of the Allied powers, enablling it to demand a larger measure of control over its oil industry, managed by foreign corporations.

From 1958 to 1998, Venezuelans lived under a system of representative democracy, with political freedom and social reforms. Power was shared, or held alternatively, by two main political parties, one Social Democrat and the other Christian Democrat.. During the first half of this forty-year period, enormous progress was achieved in modernization and political, economic, social and cultural development, while in later years increasing symptoms of stagnation and decline appeared.

In foreign policy, the democratic administrations agreed on certain long-range objectives or principles, which might be summed up in three words:

a) Democracy

b) Autonomy

c) Security.

Successive administrations gave variable emphasis to the three basic objectives, according to changing circumstances. From 1958 to 1968, the defense and promotion of democracy and human rights, not only within the country but also beyond its borders received top priority, since Venezuela’s liberty was under threat from subversives of both the extreme right and the extreme left, the former supported by reactionary dictators, and the latter by Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Therefore, an effort to condemn and isolate dictators throughout the Western Hemisphere became Venezuela’s number one concern during these years. After 1969, however, Venezuelan democracy seemed secure and so, for a decade, the main diplomatic emphasis was shifted to the quest for greater fairness in trade and financial dealings between the “North” (industrialized powers) and the “South” (developing countries), giving the latter a wider autonomy or sovereignty in world affairs. This overall policy included the adoption of nationalist economic measures

To some degree, however, all three basic principles were served at all times. In 1958-68, while the main stress was laid on democracy, the concern for national autonomy was present and showed itself in economic policy. In later years, when autonomy headed the diplomatic agenda, democratic solidarity continued to be shown to other Latin American countries. Attention was also paid during the entire democratic era to the third basic principle, security, through negotiations on the peaceful settlement of territorial controversies with neighboring countries.

In 1979 a worsening of economic conditions in Latin America brought about social conflicts, political deterioration and a loss of international clout for Venezuela and the region as a whole. Venezuelan diplomacy became more subdued and indecisive than in former decades, and there were frequent shifts between foreign policy priorities.

The Foreign Policy of Hugo Chávez

After leading a failed coup d’état in 1992 and spending three years in jail, a charismatic former army officer, Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez, was elected president in 1998 on the crest of a wave of protest against a liberal democracy plagued by mediocre leadership, corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor. Under Chávez’s leadership, Venezuelan politics were militarized and centralized. Checks and balances disappeared and all authority was gathered in the hands of the chief of state. The regime is populist: based on pitting the “people” against the “oligarchy,” with social programs that relieve poverty but do not reach its roots. Private investment has been discouraged by increasing state control and nationalizations.

From 1999 on, Chávez has introduced significant changes into Venezuelan foreign policy. Instead of further promoting representative democracy and political pluralism, he proposes the establishment, in Latin America and the world, of a revolutionary regime tending toward “socialism.” When Chávez and his aides talk of socialism, they are not thinking of the Scandinavian or British Labor type of social democracy, but of the Cuban communist model which they praise unreservedly. At the beginning of their rule, Hugo Chávez and his “Bolivarian” fellow officers received ideological influences from both the extreme right (fascists with Argentine backgrounds) and extreme leftists (historical offshoots of the Communist Party). Eventually the fascist influence waned and the communist imprint became dominant.

After weathering a surge of internal opposition that actually overthrew his rule for three days in 2002 and paralyzed the country through a strike in 2003, Chávez was able, with intensive help from Cuba, to reassume full control and to raise his popularity through huge social spending. In 2004 he succeeded in defeating the opposition in a recall referendum, thus entering a period of increased power.

On the global scale, Venezuelan diplomacy was turned more and more sharply against the United States and President Bush, whom Chávez blames for all and any action directed against himself. To strengthen his position inside Venezuela, he presents the world as divided between absolute good and absolute evil. The former is embodied by the advance, under Chávez’s leadership, toward “Bolivarian” or “21st century” socialism, and the latter, by a dark alliance between the “empire” and the “oligarchy.” The latter is made up of all Venezuelans who disagree with the regime and are its “enemies.” In order to oppose the United States politically, Chávez cultivates Venezuelan alliance and cooperation with all of America’s rivals or antagonists: China, Russia, Belarus, and particularly Iran, developing a warm friendship with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Within the Western Hemisphere, Chávez has replaced the former Venezuelan-U.S. “special relationship” with a new “special relation” between Venezuela and Cuba. For years, Fidel has been Chávez’s hero and mentor. Through vastly generous foreign aid programs, the Venezuelan government has conquered the adherence and political friendship of large portions of Latin America and the Caribbean. Chávez has embraced the Brazilian strategic concept of building a South American regional bloc that can talk to the United States with a single voice on a basis of near-equality, but while president Lula da Silva thinks in terms of constructive negotiations, the Venezuelan leader would like to see a hostile confrontation between the two Americas.

Inside Latin America, the Chávez scheme, based on ideological confrontation, consists in the creation of two concentric alliances, directed against another, hostile, group of countries. The inner circle of close friends, largely financed by Venezuelan oil money and quick to listen to Chávez’s voice, is the “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas” (ALBA) formed by Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica and Honduras, with Ecuador as a close sympathizer. The outer circle of somewhat looser “progressive” allies consists of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and, in a more detached way, Chile. In addition, Venezuela bestows cheap oil on a number of small Caribbean countries grouped in the association “Petrocaribe.” On the other side, opposed to “Bolivarian” designs and friendly toward the United States, Chávez sees an alliance of potential enemies that include Colombia, Peru, Mexico and part of Central America. Chávez has in the past displayed active sympathy for Colombia’s terroristic guerrillas —the FARC—and a captured FARC laptop seems to provide some concrete indications of material support. Thus, his relations with President Álvaro Uribe’s government are strained, with negative effects on the very active and massive commercial and human exchange between the two neighboring countries (Colombia is Venezuela’s number two trade partner, after the United States).

Future Perspectives

At the end of 2007—a year in which Chávez’s anti-US and anti-“capitalist” radicalism reached its zenith—the tide suddenly began to turn against him. Rising inflation, crime and corruption, scarcity of consumers’ goods, growing divisions within the chavista ranks, and the general inefficiency of the administration had begun to erode the prestige of El Lider. On December 2, 2007, he suffered his first electoral defeat, in a referendum on a series of radical constitutional reforms including the possibility of life-long presidential reelection. Later on, new restrictions on democratic rights within Venezuela, as well as the Colombian assertions of Venezuela’s support of the guerrillas, cost Chávez the sympathy of substantial sectors of an international democratic left that had until then granted him grudging support.

The time has come for evaluations of the historical role of chavismo and for tentative drafts of what a democratic post-Chávez Venezuela might look like. The forces opposing Chávez in Venezuela are united in the desire to restore democratic freedoms, but their differing political philosophies range all the way from conservatism to democratic socialism. After Chávez, a Venezuelan right-wing government would probably cleanse the country’s foreign policy of “third-worldish” elements and go back to a modest diplomacy tending to repair and deepen the nation’s inter-dependence with its traditional foreign friends. Under such a government, Venezuela would concentrate on being a reliable provider and would totally cease to be a gadfly.

On the other hand, a slightly more left-leaning democratic administration—supported not only by the present opposition but also by a portion of honest former chavistas—might try to combine the return to traditional friendships with the retention and improvement of some of Chávez’s more constructive impulses, such as: a wide scope of Venezuelan diplomatic presence, a drive to foster the unity of Latin America and a bi-regional dialogue within the Americas, an effort toward more North-South equity and more South-South cooperation, and an active wish to see a wider and better-balanced distribution of power among the main regions of the world.

Fall 2008Volume VIII, Number 1

Demetrio Boersner is a political journalist and author of Relaciones Internacionales de America Latina (6th edition, Caracas: Grijalbo, 2007) and other books. He teaches at the Universidad Catolica Andres Bello (UCAB) in Caracas. From 1958 to 1983, he was a Professor of the History of International Relations at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). He also served as the head of the political section of the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry and was Venezuelan Ambassador to Bucarest, Stockholm and Vienna. He is a Venezuelan citizen born in Hamburg, Germany.

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