Venezuela's foreign policy under the late President Hugo Chávez, and now his successor Nicolas Maduro, has been subject to sharply differing interpretations. Some observers see the oil-rich country's foreign relations since Chávez's election in December 1998 as shaped by a visionary who has promoted international solidarity with the oppressed, combated poverty, and pushed for a just world order free of uni-polar domination. For critics, however, Venezuela's foreign policy has been incoherent, militaristic, and prejudicial to regional stability.
Does Venezuelan foreign policy include ethical considerations, as its supporters claim? The evidence suggests it does and that as a result we can be more optimistic about possibilities for incorporating ethics into international affairs than some scholars would have us believe.
The Ethical Dimension of Venezuelan Foreign Relations
To evaluate a possible ethical dimension to Venezuelan foreign policy, it is necessary to understand the ideology Chávez imbued in the country's international affairs. Five concepts are central. The first two are the primacy of national sovereignty and Latin American and Caribbean integration. These are based on an understanding of foreign policy as a continuation of the Pan-American vision of Venezuela's founder and 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, who also gives the name to Chávez's "Bolivarian" political project. The third and fourth are the importance of international solidarity and south-south cooperation, which hold that Venezuela's development should be based on mutual solidarity and cooperation with the countries of the global south. Finally, these concepts coalesce to form the pursuit of a multi-polar world order, which sees Venezuela's international role in strengthening ties with emerging powers across different regions as part of a shift to a more balanced international system which will guarantee "world peace" and "universal well-being." This implicitly involves an attempt to counter-balance the weight of the United States in international affairs.1
One example of Venezuela's pursuit of these values is the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). This alliance of leftist Latin American nations founded by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 has implemented regional development strategies based on the principles of "solidarity, cooperation and complementing." Programs aiming to guarantee food security, universal literacy, free health and education, and decent housing are strongly marked by values of social justice and human development.2 Social programs promoted by the ALBA include the "Miracle Mission," which provides free eye treatment and surgery to Venezuelan citizens and those of several Latin American countries. The program has treated around 1.2 million people in Venezuela since its launch in 2004.3
Development assistance and solidarity have also been evident in Venezuela's outreach to the Caribbean, particularly with the PetroCaribe initiative. Launched in 2005, the program offers Venezuelan petroleum to Caribbean nations at a discount rate. Participating nations only pay a percentage of the oil's market price up front, with the rest converted into low-interest, long-term loans. A portion of these loans can be amortised through payment in goods and services; for example, Cuba sends medical personnel to Venezuela in exchange for oil shipments. The loans also become important sources of capital spending for the region's governments. Eighteen Caribbean states now participate in the program, and Venezuelan oil minister Rafael Ramirez estimated in 2011 that PetroCaribe covers 43 percent of participating nations' energy needs.4 In the context of rising oil prices in the 2000s, a Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) report on the scheme described it as "the most concrete proposal on the table to alleviate the region's suffering."5
Perhaps no other Caribbean nation has benefitted more from this kind of regional solidarity than Haiti. Following the devastating January 2010 earthquake, Venezuela pledged $2.4 billion in financial and relief aid, more than any other of 58 donors. This aid has included building power plants, shelters, a new hospital (in collaboration with Cuba), sending food and medical supplies, and assistance to develop Haiti's agricultural sector.6 Venezuela even wrote off $400 million of Haiti's PetroCaribe debt. This important reconstruction aid was given despite the fact that Haiti is by no means an ideological ally of Venezuela's leftist government; its president, Michel Martelly, is close to Haiti's business elite and the United States. Nevertheless Martelly has publicly thanked Venezuela for its solidarity and help since the earthquake, commenting in December 2011 that for Haiti, "cooperation with Venezuela is the most important right now, in terms of impact, direct impact."7
Africa is another continent where relations seem to be driven as much by ideology and ethical values as by strategic interests. From 2005, Chávez began referring to Africa as a "motherland" and pursuing "south-south cooperation," or mutual development strategies, in the region. Over the next six years Venezuela established diplomatic relations with all 54 African countries, opened new embassies, and signed over 200 cooperation agreements with the continent, where only 20 had existed beforehand.8 Many of these agreements contain a clear element of solidarity and humanitarian assistance. In 2009 Venezuela pledged $20 million to the West African ECOWAS group for malarial eradication programs, while in February 2013 it offered technical assistance and personnel training to the Sahrawi Democratic Republic to improve the population's access to safe drinking water. Further, around 500 students from over 15 African countries study in Venezuela courtesy of government scholarships, many of these in medical courses, with the intention that after their studies these newly-trained professionals return to their home countries to provide much needed public services.9 A similar program is offered to Palestine, where Venezuela has also committed to build medical facilities.
Such attempts at greater cooperation with countries of the global south have led Venezuela to play a key diplomatic role in moves toward intensifying Latin American and south-south integration. In addition to founding the ALBA and PetroCaribe, Venezuela was also a founding member of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008, and played host to the founding conference of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2011, which brings together every nation in the Americas with the exception of the U.S. and Canada. Venezuela was also host to the II Africa–South America (ASA) summit in 2009, and is set to host the tri-annual summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in 2015, and thereafter become the president of the grouping of 130 developing nations. The country was also elected to serve on the UN Human Rights Council for 2013–2016 and is a mediator in peace talks underway between the FARC guerrilla group and the Colombian government. Taken together, these aspects of Venezuela's foreign policy have led observers such as Venezuelan geographer and analyst Rosalba Linares to conclude that Bolivarian-era foreign relations aim to construct "a sovereign, democratic and more humanitarian multi-polar world, of greater social justice and fair trade in benefit of those most in need in Venezuela and the world."10
The Pursuit of Strategic Interests
Of course, it would be mistaken to understand Venezuelan foreign relations as solely motivated by ethical or altruistic considerations. Even solidarity-based policies have clear "soft" benefits such as raising the government's diplomatic and international standing. Venezuela's foreign relations have also been shaped by concrete strategic interests. Chief among these are energy interests, which are woven throughout foreign policy, as Venezuela holds the largest crude oil reserves in the world. The Bolivarian government has sought to increase ties with other energy powers for the extraction of Venezuelan crude and to diversify its oil export markets. In the context of the deterioration of relations with the United States, strategic policy goals have also included creating a robust network of international alliances and securing alternative sources of financing, technological assistance, and military hardware.
In the first years of Chávez's presidency the state oil company PDVSA was brought under greater government control. At the same time the government pushed for the revitalisation of OPEC, advocating the policy of production quotas to help ensure that world oil prices rose to levels favourable to exporting countries. The elevation of oil prices in the 2000s gave the Venezuelan government flexibility to pursue active energy diplomacy abroad while funding a wave of new social programs at home.
The government has built what it calls "strategic alliances" with several energy powers, including Russia and China. Russian energy giant Gazprom now works with PDVSA to explore gas deposits in the Gulf of Venezuela and Russian firms are active in the extraction of oil in Venezuela's Orinoco Belt. Russia is also useful to Venezuela as a source of military hardware, with Chávez's government becoming Russia's biggest customer of military goods after India.11
Meanwhile China has provided Venezuela with a new market for its petroleum exports. Oil exports to China rose from almost zero in 2004 to 460,000 bpd in 2010, a number that officials want to increase to one million.12 The relationship has also resulted in over 300 bilateral agreements and 80 major projects, and has allowed the Venezuelan government access to financing and technology, the latter exemplified by the launching of Venezuela's first satellites with Chinese assistance in 2008 and 2012.
Venezuela has formed a web of links with other countries enjoying oil and gas reserves, such as Iran, Syria, Brazil, and certain African countries. Given their relatively independent diplomatic stance in world affairs, strengthening ties with these nations has also fitted within the ideological goal of building "south-south cooperation" and a "multi-polar world order."
Meanwhile relations with Venezuela's traditional commercial partner and top recipient of crude exports, the United States, have been frozen at the charge de affairs level since 2010. Venezuelan officials blame this on the U.S. government's belligerence and lack of respect for Venezuela's independence and sovereignty, including support for and alleged involvement in the short-lived coup attempt to topple the Chávez administration in 2002. For its part, the United States has accused Venezuela of failing to sufficiently cooperate with counter-narcotics and anti-terrorism efforts, and of acting against U.S. interests by pursuing relations with "enemy" states such as Iran. Nevertheless, there are signs that the relationship is improving under the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, after Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua met with Secretary of State John Kerry during an OAS summit in early June. "We would like to see our countries find a new way forward, to establish a more constructive and positive relationship," said Kerry following the meeting. However, it remains to be seen whether the recent decision by President Maduro to offer asylum to ex-NSA intelligence leaker Edward Snowden will have an impact on efforts to improve bilateral relations.
Criticisms and Contradictions
Critics point to contradictions in the conduct of Venezuela's foreign policy, and question the existence of an ethical dimension to Venezuelan foreign relations.
An accusation which emanates principally from the United States is that rather than seeking "world peace," Venezuela in fact pursues an aggressive policy of building up its arms stockpile while forming alliances seen as threatening to U.S. national security. In September 2009 then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton raised concerns over Venezuela's arms purchases from Russia, arguing that the Chávez administration was engaging in a military build-up which could trigger a South American "arms race." "They [Venezuela] outpace all other countries in South America [in military purchases] and certainly raise the question as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region," she said.13 Further, some conservative politicians and analysts have argued that Venezuela should be considered a "national security threat" due to its ties with countries regarded as hostile to the U.S, such as Iran and Syria.14
However, neither the figures nor events bear out fears that Venezuela is unduly arming itself or seeking military-style alliances with U.S. adversaries. According to the CIA World Factbook, in 2009 Venezuela put 1.4 percent of GDP toward military spending, the 5th highest in the region and less than the U.S., Colombia, and Chile. By 2012, military spending in Venezuela had halved as a percentage of GDP to 0.7 percent, with the country spending less than most major countries in the region, being only 153rd out of 173 countries measured globally for military spending.15 Venezuelan government officials meanwhile state that its international alliances are "about peace" and not in any way an aggression toward a third party. This point was highlighted during the visit from former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinajad to Venezuela in January 2012. Nicolas Maduro, in his capacity of foreign minister, said to press at the time that bilateral ties between the two countries were part of a "peaceful relationship…we have a relationship of cooperation for development… and above all, for peace".16
This appraisal of Venezuela's diplomatic and defence policy appears to be shared by the U.S. military establishment. In August 2012 General Douglas Fraser, chief of U.S. Southern Command, said that although he would like greater cooperation from Venezuela against drug trafficking, he did not consider Venezuela a security threat to the United States. When asked if he thought Venezuela's arms purchases constituted a danger to the U.S., Fraser replied, "From my standpoint, no…I don't see them [Venezuela] as a national security threat." Further, when asked whether Venezuela's relationship with Iran amounted to a "military alliance," the general disagreed, stating, "As I look at Iran and their connection with Venezuela, I see that still primarily as a diplomatic and economic relationship."17 President Barack Obama has taken a similar stance, announcing in an interview in July 2012, "Overall my sense is that what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us."18
Thus the notion that Venezuelan military purchases and bilateral relationships represent a threat to the United States appears to be an overreaction from certain observers within U.S. political and media spheres, who confuse Venezuela's independent foreign policy with one threatening U.S. security.
Others argue that there exists a contradiction in Venezuelan foreign policy between claims to pursue the values of democracy, humanitarianism, and solidarity, while supporting governments considered authoritarian or with poor human rights records. In 2011, political sociologist and author Gregory Wilpert argued that Venezuela ran a "significant" risk of losing legitimacy among progressives when Chávez continued to support former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi against an insurgency in that country, a point that could be extended to several other of Venezuela's allies in the Middle East.19
Another seemingly contradictory move by a government purporting to promote ethical values in its foreign policy is Venezuela's decision to withdraw from the OAS' Inter-American Court and Human Rights Commission (IACHR) in 2012, on the basis of the body's alleged "shameful" bias against the Chávez administration. The decision is also part of a shifting focus toward Latin American autonomy and integration, with several states in the region pushing for the formation of new mechanisms to promote human rights within the UNASUR and CELAC. 20
A final question for Venezuela's foreign relations is the extent to which policies pursued under Chávez will continue under the presidency of Nicolas Maduro, who was elected to power in April, following Chávez's death in March. Maduro was Chávez's foreign minister from 2006–2012, and in that role helped to build Venezuela's contemporary foreign relations. The new president has pledged to continue these policies and his active foreign diplomacy over the previous three months seems to confirm this. Present challenges for Maduro include assuming the presidency of the Mercosur trade bloc this summer, and seeking productive relationships with the U.S. and Europe; steps toward which appear to have already been taken.
Between Ethics and Interests
In common with all nation states, over the past 14 years Venezuela has pursued clearly defined strategic and economic interests through its foreign policy. These have included developing greater links with other energy powers and ensuring access to sources of financing and military hardware. The government has also sought commercial, technological, agricultural, educational, health, and other forms of cooperation considered beneficial to Venezuela's national development.
Although certain criticisms of contradictory behaviour can be levelled at Venezuela's foreign relations, policymaking has followed a coherent logic. From technological cooperation with China to malaria eradication assistance in Africa, Venezuela's new foreign relations have been built within an ideological framework embodied by the notions of "south-south cooperation" and a "multi-polar world."
Further, while all nations could be said to act in their own strategic interests, not all have also placed norms of cooperation, solidarity and humanitarianism as a central focus of foreign policy. These values can be seen in agreements Venezuela has made with countries across all continents, but especially in the Americas and Africa. Even in the United States, PDVSA subsidiary CITGO aids around 100,000 low-income families during the winter with donated Venezuelan heating oil.21 Thus while it would be false to state that Venezuelan foreign policy is solely motivated by ethical considerations, it would be misleading to explain the country's external relations without reference to these. This ethical dimension to Venezuela's foreign policy is a demonstration that if the political will exists, governments can pursue such values within their foreign relations. In doing so, concrete and mutual benefits can be reaped for both the development of societies and the wellbeing of peoples.