The Venezuelan president had indeed come a long way. In 1998, when he was first elected president, South American leaders were still enthralled by Washington-style neoliberal economics. At that time, with his fierce denunciations of globalization, Chávez was viewed by many throughout the region as a kind of ideological throwback. But as social movements gained strength over the next several years and new progressive leaders took power in the neighborhood, Chávez seemed to be at the forefront of social struggle against corporate free trade.
ALBA: Chávez’s Geopolitical Instrument
Chávez’s geopolitical instrument was the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), designed to promote reciprocal trade outside of the usual corporate strictures. An innovative initiative, ALBA was quickly embraced by the likes of
Could the Venezuelan leader promote “socialism for the twenty-first century” and successfully turn back
In short order,
For a medium-sized country with only 27 million inhabitants,
The Rise of Rafael Correa
Prior to the 2006 presidential election in
The maverick Ecuadoran politician later visited Chávez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader. "It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," he declared. Borrowing one of Chávez’s favorite slogans, Correa said he also supported so-called "socialism for the twenty-first century."
Correa, a young economist with a Ph.D. from the
Correa had nothing but contempt for George Bush. When he was asked about Chávez’s "devil" diatribe against the
After winning the presidential election, Correa looked as if he might be willing to back up his rhetoric with real deeds. Correa “has cut off talks about a possible free trade agreement with the
Indeed, Correa traveled to
After his extended meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Correa appeared upbeat about the prospects of
Correa Skittish about Chávez
Once in power however, Correa backed off his default threats and left the door open to a free trade agreement with the
Moreover, Correa did not describe his policies in the same grandiose terms as Chávez, who said he was leading a "revolution" for
In another rebuff to Chávez, Correa started to back down from his previously enthusiastic statements in support of ALBA. Speaking to the Associated Press, the Ecuadoran President said that the initiative was “ambiguous” and that he didn’t “even understand it.”
When Chávez called on ALBA member nations to begin preparations for a joint Defense Council to counter
Correa said he would not join ALBA until the “objectives [and] actions of said organization become more consolidated.” The Ecuadoran President would not exclude the possibility of one day joining ALBA, but “for the moment the decision of the government is not to participate.” Though Ecuadoran officials did not explain their rationale for the decision, Chávez’s refusal to rejoin the Andean Community may have played a role. As early as December 2006, Correa had conditioned Ecuadoran participation in ALBA upon the return of
Behind the official explanation however, could Correa have concealed other motivations?
At this point small, impoverished nations like
In fact, Correa has been careful to stress his differences with Chávez. Last year, when the Venezuelan leader announced that he would press for a constitutional reform that would abolish presidential term limits, Correa said he had no desire to pursue a similar political strategy for
A Dent in Chávez’s Armor
Even worse, Chávez’s proposed constitutional reform proved to be a political bust and may have led erstwhile supporters such as Correa to doubt the Bolivarian Revolution’s long-term viability. Having won reelection in 2006 to a six-year term, Chávez hoped to build on his ballot box success by promoting a constitutional referendum. Though Chávez and his followers had already enacted a new constitution in 1999, the President claimed that the document was in need of an overhaul so as to pave the way for a new socialist state.
Chávez sought to reduce the workweek from 44 to 36 hours; to provide social security to informal sector workers such as housewives, street vendors and maids; to shift political power to grassroots communal councils; to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or health; to extend formal recognition to Afro-Venezuelan people; to require gender parity for all public offices; to formalize the right to adequate housing and a free public education; to protect the full rights of prisoners, and to create new types of property managed by cooperatives and communities.
The progressive provisions would have done much to challenge entrenched interests in
Since the inception of the Bolivarian Revolution, there had been a constant tension between grassroots empowerment on the one hand and the cult of personality surrounding Chávez on the other. In pressing for his constitutional referendum Chávez played right into the hands of the opposition which had always claimed that the Venezuelan leader’s secret agenda was to concentrate power in his own hands.
Under the constitutional reform, Chávez could declare a state of emergency and the government would have the right to detain individuals without charge and to close down media outlets. Chávez’s own term limit would be extended from six to seven years, and he would be allowed the right to run indefinitely for president. Inconsistently, however, governors and mayors would not be allowed to run for reelection.
On election day, the opposition failed to increase its voter share but was able to eke out a tiny margin of victory when some of the Chávez faithful grew disenchanted and failed to turn out to vote. True, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funded vocal anti-Chávez students who campaigned against the referendum and the CIA could have played a role in helping to strengthen the opposition. But no matter how much the Venezuelan President railed against the
Perhaps, if Chávez had merely backed the progressive provisions within the referendum and not tried to increase his own power, the vote would have tipped the other way. But by backing the retrograde measures Chávez gave much needed ammunition to the opposition.
The Zenith of Chávez’s Power
Failure to pass the constitutional referendum surely represented a severe setback for Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, but did not necessarily represent a total rout. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan President played right into the hands of the opposition again by backing an unpopular intelligence law. The new law required Venezuelans to cooperate with intelligence agencies and secret police if requested; refusal could result in up to four years in prison. Moreover, the law allowed security forces to gather evidence through surveillance methods such as wiretapping without obtaining a court order, and authorities could withhold evidence from defense lawyers if it was considered to be in the interest of national security.
Concerned about the new legislation, rights groups claimed that the proposed measure would threaten civil liberties. "Among other problems with this law, any suspect’s right to defense can be violated, and that’s unacceptable," said Carlos Correa, a leader of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea. Correa compared the law to the Patriot Act in the United States, which gave U.S. law enforcement agencies greater powers to intercept communications and investigate suspected terrorists on U.S. soil after the 9/11 attacks.
Defending his legislation, Chávez argued the measure would help
Chávez: Facing an Uphill Political
Emboldened by Chávez’s tactical mistakes, the opposition is hoping to stage a comeback on November 23 when
In November, the Chavistas are facing a two-pronged problem. To begin with, the opposition may have won some support from moderate Chavistas who are scared of radical change. Perhaps even more seriously, the president’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could lose the vote of disaffected former Chavistas who blame bureaucracy and corruption for sabotaging the revolutionary process. If this constituency stays home and abstains from voting, it could be a disaster for Chávez and his movement.
Chávez clearly understands the high stakes. The upcoming regional elections, he declared, were “the most important in Venezuelan history.” Indeed, an opposition victory could pave the way for the rise of a more moderate political figure on the national stage. Though the traditional Chávez opposition has largely been discredited, former Chávez allies who have broken with the president could now rise to prominence. If a less polarizing leader should come to power in
One figure that has recently captured the spotlight is Raúl Baduel, a Venezuelan general and former Minister of Defense. Though Baduel was instrumental in restoring Chávez to power amid the April 2002 coup, he later broke with the president by criticizing the failed 2007 constitutional reform. It would be tempting for the State Department to try and pry off former Chavistas like Baduel in an effort to derail the Bolivarian experiment.
Even if the opposition fails to produce a charismatic leader, other options are on the table. If it wins in November, for example, the opposition might feel emboldened to intensify its campaign to remove the Venezuelan president, either through a constitutional referendum in 2010 or by more violent means. At the very least, a new drubbing at the polls would be likely to dash any hope of reviving Chávez’s plan to evade the constitutional ban on his re-election in 2012. A reaffirmation of the expiry date of Chávez’s presidency would in turn fire the starting gun of the race to succeed the maverick politician.
Scenario #1: Obama
For all its internal contradictions, missteps and even failures,
Currently in the
On the other hand, an Obama victory would take a lot of wind out of Chávez’s sail. To an extent, Chávez was able to leap on to the world stage as a result of
If he were to win, Obama would start off his administration with an enormous amount of goodwill in
Obama could capitalize on this goodwill by withdrawing troops from
Scenario #2: McCain
On the other hand, were John McCain to win then Chávez’s political fortunes would improve immensely. McCain has chaired the International Republican Institute (IRI) since 1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan, democracy-building outfit, in reality the IRI serves as an instrument to advance and promote the most far-right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most antidemocratic factions in the
McCain has taken a personal interest in IRI’s
On Capitol Hill, McCain has championed pro-U.S. Latin American regimes while working to isolate those governments rising up to challenge
McCain seeks to confront countries such as
Mr. Big Stick in the Caribbean and
If McCain were to win the upcoming presidential election, Chávez could then turn to the Venezuelan electorate and say: “McCain’s right wing agenda for
Back in Washington, McCain might continue U.S. assistance to right-wing Cubans. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, some island nations such as Haiti and Dominica have tried to navigate a delicate balancing act by maintaining friendly ties to the U.S. and also Venezuela. A McCain administration is unlikely to tolerate such subtle diplomatic nuances and would probably act to halt Chávez’s political influence in the region in one way or another.
Similarly, McCain is unlikely to look upon the rising Pink Tide sweeping from South America into Central America with much approval. A long-time foe of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, McCain might try to destabilize the regime in Managua and prevent the left-wing frontrunner from taking power in El Salvador in advance of the country’s March 2009 presidential election.
Such a scenario would work to Chávez’s advantage. The Venezuelan leader could justifiably claim that the U.S. was resorting to classic interventionism in its so-called “backyard.” It’s easy to imagine how the war of words and heated rhetoric might escalate from there. If McCain stepped up aid to the Venezuelan opposition, then Chávez could talk about the need to fortify and protect the Bolivarian Revolution, thereby shoring up his political base.
South America’s New Political Trajectory
Within such a polarized political climate Chávez might even succeed in passing his constitutional reform, thereby extending presidential term limits. If the reform contains many of the progressive measures of the original proposal, Chávez might regain political momentum throughout South America, consolidate his socialist state, and rekindle some of the political enthusiasm that characterized his movement from 2002 to 2006.
Members of South American’s Pink Tide are unlikely to view a McCain administration with much favor, particularly if the new president continues to prosecute the war in Iraq. Argentina, which has no love for the kinds of neoliberal economic policies espoused by McCain, and which has maintained decidedly frosty relations with Washington, would probably deepen its diplomatic and political alliance with Venezuela.
Thus far, Chávez’s ALBA alliance hasn’t constituted a particularly formidable bloc of countries, but Venezuela might be able to extend its geopolitical reach somewhat if McCain is in power. It is difficult to imagine, for example, that Correa would seek to cut a free trade deal with a right-wing administration in Washington. If McCain continues the Bush policies in South America, then Ecuador and other countries like Paraguay might look to Venezuela as a regional leader and sign up for ALBA.
Up to now, the biggest thorns in Chávez’s side have been Colombia and Peru. Even as the wider region lurches leftward, these two nations doggedly maintain strong commercial and military ties to the United States. On the other hand, there’s been tremendous social and political resistance to neoliberal economic reforms in both countries as of late. While it’s unlikely that the left might come to power in these two Andean countries, such a possibility can’t be entirely discarded. If the political landscape were to suddenly change, Chávez might even consider rejoining the Andean Community. Within such a scenario, Venezuela would have much more influence over the course of future political and economic integration in South America.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).