Venezuela’s Foreign Policy

Steve Ellner

State Department officials grit their teeth when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez
challenges U.S. foreign policy, but occasionally he provokes a sharper
reaction. For example, in August Chávez was the first Western nation head of
state to visit Iraq since the U.N.-imposed boycott went into effect ten years
ago. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher called the trip
“irritating” and “a bad idea.” Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel
retorted by labeling the U.S. attitude “hypocrisy.” He added that in the
past the U.S. government maintained cordial relations with both military and
communist regimes, and so “why can’t we do the same?” In a nation-wide
broadcast the day after he returned, Chávez mocked Boucher’s statements
suggesting the use of body cream “to alleviate the irritation.”

This was not
the first time that a State Department official lost his/her patience and
disregarded Washington’s official policy of restraint toward Chávez.
Earlier this year, Under Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Peter Romero told Spanish reporters: “In Venezuela, you don’t see a
government in charge—only plebiscites, referendums and more elections. They
tell us ‘wait,’ but we gringos are not exactly known for our patience.”

Romero had reason to be irked. Chávez had just snubbed a U.S. offer to send
marine corps engineers and bulldozers to repair the highway connecting Caracas
with coastal areas devastated by heavy flooding on December 15, 1999. Chávez
feared that the sheer number of U.S. military personnel reaching as many as
1,000 would set a dangerous precedent. In previous weeks, U.S. ambassador John
Maisto had assured the State Department that the plan for aid would win Chávez
over to closer relations with the U.S. In the aftermath of the rebuff,
Maisto’s strategy seemed ingenuous. Indeed, if Chávez is under the sway of
anyone, it is foreign minister Rangel, three-time socialist presidential
candidate whose nationalistic sentiment has not dimmed over the years.

In spite of the
radical thrust of his movement—as embodied in the nation’s new
constitution, which went into effect this year—Chávez has carefully
eschewed anti-U.S. rhetoric. Instead, Chávez, like Peru’s Alberto Fujimori,
lashes out at the nation’s traditional political parties, which he holds
responsible for the nation’s social and economic woes. In another similarity
with Fujimori, Chávez relies heavily on military officers who are well placed
in his government and party. Chávez was a middle-level officer who led an
abortive coup against the corruption-ridden government of Carlos Andrés Pérez
in February 1992.

opposition to sanctions against Peru following the allegedly fraudulent
elections of May 28 reinforced the comparisons with Fujimori in the U.S. press
(in spite of basic policy differences between the two leaders) and at the same
time further irritated Washington. Venezuela, along with Mexico, played an
activist role in blocking U.S. efforts in the OAS to impose hemispheric
sanctions on Peru. Chávez then attended the summit of the Andean Community of
Nations (CAN) in Lima, hosted by Fujimori. In an indirect reference to U.S.
proposed actions against Fujimori, Chávez declared: “Rather than accepting
the imposition of models and economic policies, what we should do is march in
the direction of a system of international relations based on equality and
mutual respect.”


From Overt
U.S. Hostility To Restraint

U.S. attitude toward Chávez at the beginning of his political career was
hardly indulgent. Following Chávez’s decision to run for the presidency in
the 1998 elections, the State Department turned down his request for a visa to
allow him to explain his platform to multinational representatives in New York
and Washington. Madeleine Albright pointed out that according to U.S. law Chávez
was ineligible due to his participation in the 1992 coup. She failed to
mention, however, that the U.S. did grant a visa to the number two-man in the
coup attempt, Francisco Arias Cárdenas. In one respect, U.S. flexibility paid
off as the more tractable Arias broke with Chávez and was his main rival in
special elections held on July 30. During the campaign, Arias criticized Chávez’s
defiant attitude toward the U.S. and his kind words for Cuba.

The rejection
of Chávez’s visa request boomeranged. Just after the request was denied, Chávez’s
popularity soared. The lesson was not lost on Ambassador Maisto: Chávez
thrives on controversy and as any populist he creates an “us” vs.
“them” dichotomy. The “them” included the pro-establishment parties,
big business, the media, and even the Church. Maisto was intent on avoiding
inclusion of the U.S. in the enemy camp.

At the time of
Chávez’s election in December 1998 and throughout his first year in office,
Maisto used cogent arguments to swing over Romero and others in the State
Department to his policy of cautiousness and wait-and-see. First, a hostile
approach to Chávez was not recommended due to his widespread popularity. In
contrast to Salvador Allende who had won with one-third of the vote, Chávez
captured 56 percent in the presidential elections of 1998 and he did even
better in three elections held last year and the one held on July 30. Second,
Chávez’s economic policy has yet to be clearly defined. What the State
Department most appreciates is that, after pushing a proposed moratorium on
the foreign debt as presidential candidate, Chávez has stayed within the
bounds of the agreement with the IMF negotiated by his predecessor. Shortly
prior to the July 30 elections, Chávez held foreign creditors responsible for
subjugating third world nations to perpetual poverty, but added: “We are
paying off the debt because we want to continue to interact with foreign
lending agencies.”

Finally, some
political analysts close to the State Department have pointed out that as a
consequence of Chávez’s electoral victories the nation’s traditional
parties have collapsed like a house of cards. One political scientist told the
CIA at a closed meeting it helped organize titled “Forecasting Implications
for Venezuela” outside of Miami last November, “For all his prankishness,
Chávez is what separates Venezuela from political chaos.”

Of much greater
concern to Washington than Chávez’s rejection of aid following the December
15 calamity is his negative response to repeated U.S. requests for permission
to use Venezuelan airspace to combat drug trafficking. Previous Venezuelan
governments had unofficially authorized individual DEA-sponsored flights, a
policy that was never publicly acknowledged. Following the U.S. departure from
Panama’s Howard Air Force Base, the Pentagon has developed plans to use
airports in the Dutch islands of Aruba and Curazao off the Venezuelan coast to
patrol the area. Last year anti-drug czar Barre McCaffrey met with Chávez in
Caracas and informed him of the 18 flights from Colombia into Venezuelan
airspace, which drug traffickers average per month, warning that the latter
country risked becoming the “weak link” in the hemispheric war on drugs.

Carlos Romero,
who left the Foreign Ministry last year and teaches diplomacy at the Central
University explained Chávez’s unbending position this way: “Chávez as an
army officer does not understand the Pentagon’s fixation on ‘electronic
war,’ fought from the air and observed on monitor screens, which was first
put in evidence in the Persian Gulf conflict. This is why he fails to take the
U.S. request all that seriously.”

another explanation goes a long way in accounting for Chávez’s attitude.
One of the issues that lurked behind the February 1992 coup was the fear among
military officers that the armed forces in Latin America could be virtually
phased out as an institution due to dramatic international changes such as “globalism,”
the end of the Cold War, and shifting U.S. priorities. In the face of the
breakdown of barriers among nations in this “postmodern” world, the
military’s hitherto sacred mission of defense of national security would
seem to have lost its relevance.

Reagan’s second administration U.S. preference for democracy abroad, and its
resultant distrust of the military in third world countries, has been more
evident than in the past. The perception that the U.S. is no longer interested
in the traditional model of the armed forces is reinforced by the decline in
U.S. military aid to Latin America (with the exception of Colombia) over the
last decade. Some U.S. government officials feel that Latin American armed
forces, rather than defend borders, should take charge of combating crime and
specifically the drug trade in all its phases. In the case of Venezuela, they
consider the police force irreparably corrupt and thus unable to perform these
tasks adequately .

The military
officers who participated in the February 1992 coup and another revolt ten
months later fervently defend the military’s traditional role as guardians
of national security. Nationalist sentiment underpins their arguments: With
the foreign take-over of strategic industries through privatization,
widespread corruption, and total government incompetence, what is at stake is
not only national security but the broader issue of national sovereignty. Rear
Admiral Hernán Gruber Odremán, who led the second coup in 1992, has written
extensively in the press about the new role which politicians backed by the
U.S. are allegedly thrusting on the Venezuelan armed forces. For the military,
patrolling streets is nothing less than “an offense to national honor.”
Gruber adds: “The apparent fate of our armed forces recalls what happened to
its counterpart in Panama,” which was completely dismantled following the
U.S. invasion in 1989.

Gruber, who
President Chávez named governor of the Federal District, told me in his
office: “The United States can not expect the Venezuelan military to commit
suicide by renouncing its commitment to defending national integrity. In fact,
that function is plainly spelled out in our new constitution. I sometimes ask
myself whether the United States simply wants to erase national borders south
of the Rio Grande.”

Chávez rejects
U.S. air missions because otherwise he would be tacitly belittling the
capacity of his nation’s air force to patrol its own borders. Chávez has
defended the Venezuelan military’s record in combating drug trafficking and
maintains that it is adequately equipped to do so. Venezuela’s
representative in the OAS, Virginia Contreras, claims that in so many words
Barre McCaffrey told Chávez what should come as no surprise to anyone: the
U.S. would never allow a foreign country to do what it is requesting of

Some Venezuelan
government officials have raised the possibility of exploring alternative
arrangements, including greater interchange of information between the two
nations and training programs to boost capacity. Nevertheless, the State
Department has failed to pick up on these propositions. In private, Venezuelan
government officials express fear that allowing U.S. air force planes to fly
on the Venezuelan side of the border will add a new explosive ingredient to
the Colombian guerrilla conflict.


efforts like these fit in with the concept some specialists in Inter-American
relations have been advocating as appropriate for the post-Cold War era. In a
recent book, Joseph Tulchin of the Wilson Center and Francisco Rojas Aravena,
director of the Chilean think tank FLASCO, argue that in the absence of a
visible enemy at large, Latin American governments are presented with a
“window of opportunity.” Specifically, they see “regional partnership”
as a corrective to the paternalism, which has traditionally characterized
Washington’s attitude toward its neighbors to the south.

In certain
respects, Foreign Minister Rangel, an outspoken critic of U.S. unilateral
decision-making, shares this view. Rangel decries the U.S. certification
program in which the State Department evaluates the efforts of foreign
governments to combat the drug trade. Rangel proposes that an international
commission of recognized authorities take charge of the evaluation process.
The proposal may find acceptance among State Department officials, who
generally prefer pressuring foreign governments behind the scenes for
anti-drug measures. Indeed, the certification program, which was initiated in
1986, was inspired by the crusading spirit of the Republican right in

Late last year,
the New York Times speculated that Venezuela would be “decertified”
due to its rejection of U.S. flights over its territory. Caracas thus breathed
a sigh of relief in March when the State Department recommended to Congress
continued certification.

Rangel takes
the same stand on the U.S.’s unilateral evaluation of human rights. Rangel,
who forcefully denounced state repression throughout his long career as a
journalist and politician, told me: “We definitely do not oppose the outside
review process with regard to human rights, but too often these efforts are
tainted by political considerations.” Rangel criticized the State
Department’s annual report on human rights presented to Congress in March
for failing to recognize the advances and innovations in Venezuela’s new
constitution in this area. Subsequently, Rangel questioned the role of the
Carter Center and other private foundations in evaluating and making
recommendations for the Peruvian elections of May 28 and the Venezuelan ones
of July 30. “Governments can not be placed in the same arena as the private
sector,” Rangel argued, “since they are singularly responsible for
undertaking actions” when human rights are at stake.

differences with Washington lay behind the startling remarks by the State
Department’s Peter Romero in Spain and the more recent ones by Richard
Boucher. The new Venezuelan constitution defines the nation’s democracy as
“participatory,” a term that Foreign Minister Rangel has gotten the OAS to
ratify as a model for the entire hemisphere. The phrase is not at all to the
liking of the U.S. representatives in the OAS, some of whom consider it
nebulous and others synonymous with “mob rule.” One U.S. embassy official
in Caracas cynically remarked: “Participatory democracy can mean just about
anything, and that’s why Chávez and Fujimori like the term so much.”

The U.S.
prefers the more limited, mundane concept of “representative democracy,”
which centers on elections and political parties, as opposed to participatory
democracy’s emphasis on popular assemblies, social movements and continuous
referendums. For the State Department, the term representative democracy is
more manageable for the purpose of censuring governments such as that of Peru,
which violate electoral norms or act arbitrarily against political parties.

The Venezuelan
delegation to the OAS got the organization to create a special commission to
deal with the topic, which organized the conference “Analysis and
Reflections on Participatory Democracy” held in Washington last April.
Foreign Minister Rangel and other top Venezuelan government spokesmen
addressed the conference and stressed Chávez’s commitment to participatory
democracy, which, according to them, replaced the nation’s previous system
of representative democracy based on a coterie of corrupt leaders belonging to
the traditional parties.

In another area
of friction, President Chávez lashed out at the Plan Colombia of massive
military aid for threatening to “Vietnamize” the conflict. Caracas has
declared itself neutral in the Colombia guerrilla war, a position which some
in Washington and Bogotá view as tacit support for the guerrillas. Chávez
claims that the position is dictated by two imperatives. First, Venezuela has
successfully negotiated with the guerrillas the release of Venezuelans
kidnapped in the veritable no-mans land on the Colombian side of the border.
Even Chávez’s presidential rival, the pro-U.S. Francisco Arias Cárdenas,
as governor of the western state of Zulia, established close ties with the ELN
guerrilla force in order to help resolve individual problems along the border.
In addition, Venezuela has offered its services to both sides in Columbia to
negotiate a peace agreement, an objective of special significance for
Venezuela given the extensiveness of their common borders.

Other sources
of conflict have soured U.S. relations with Venezuela since Chávez’s
election. In March, Venezuela voted against censuring China, Iran, and Cuba in
the UN Commission on Human Rights for the second year in a row. Indeed, a key
element of Chávez’s third-worldism is his rejection of foreign interference
in internal affairs, at least under normal circumstances. Foreign Minister
Rangel told me: “Interventionism is often motivated by good intentions but
it can not override the principle of national sovereignty. Interventionism may
be justified, but only in the case of a military coup.”    

On his frequent
trips abroad, President Chávez embraces the concept of a “multi-polar”
world. When Chávez returned from his tour of OPEC nations in August, he
called for the formation of regional blocs in order to achieve a “necessary
balance” on the world scale. He went on to indicate that North America and
South America are separate blocs, thus implicitly rejecting U.S. plans to
bring Chile and even Venezuela into NAFTA under terms dictated by Washington.

OPEC also forms part of Chávez’s “multi-polar” vision. Immediately
after his election as president in December 1998, Chávez announced that
Venezuela would not compete with Saudi Arabia in the U.S. market. He also put
an end to his predecessor’s policy of spurning OPEC-assigned production
quotas and scrapped plans to sharply increase the nation’s productive
capacity. Oil prices immediately picked up. In recognition of Chávez’s new
leadership role in OPEC, Venezuela was awarded the presidency of the

On his
historical tour of ten OPEC nations in August, Chávez recalled a remark made
by Ronald Reagan about OPEC in 1986 when oil prices plunged. Chávez stated:
“We should never again allow ourselves to be ‘put to our knees’.” The
purpose of the trip was to personally invite all of OPEC’s heads of state to
the organization’s Second Summit on September 27 and 28 in Caracas. The
meeting was an initiative of the Chávez government, as was the “price
band” system in which member nations increase or reduce production in order
to ensure that prices oscillate between $22 and $28. At the summit,  Chávez
proposed the creation of an OPEC bank to serve as an alternative to
multilateral lending agencies for the world’s poorest nations.

Beyond the host
of differences that separate Venezuela and the United States, two basic
developments trouble Washington. First, Chávez’s third worldism may catch
on throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. On August 30, the New
York Times
pointed out that the State Department would much prefer to see
Brazil’s discrete Fernando Henrique Cardoso as the continent’s top leader
than the “firebrand” Hugo Chavez whose foreign policy contains
“anti-American elements.” Second, more than any other OPEC nation,
Venezuela is responsible for oil price hikes and under Chávez has emerged as
the organization’s driving force. Of course, the revitalization of OPEC that
Venezuela has fomented and the resurgence of third worldism are interrelated.

In the face of
the growing tension between Washington and Caracas throughout 1999, Peter
Romero took flack from the Pentagon, which considered Chávez’s rejection of
U.S. aid in the wake of the December 15 hurricane a slap in the face for this
country. Romero, a 23-year career diplomat, is particularly vulnerable because
his appointment by Clinton in July 1998 has yet to be confirmed by Congress.
Romero’s unusually blunt remarks in Spain may have been a face-saving
device. Indeed, Ambassador Maisto told Foreign Minister Rangel that Romero
made them in his own name, an opinion that was seconded by Clinton’s Special
Assistant for Inter-American Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela.

another opinion was voiced by the New York Times, which interpreted
Romero’s remarks as a warning to Chávez on the part of the Clinton
administration. They may have also signaled a stiffening of the U.S. position
and the triumph of the hard-liners in Washington, who include not only
Pentagon officials but also several ex-ambassadors to Venezuela. This
interpretation was reinforced by the replacement in August of Ambassador
Maisto by hard-liner Donna Hrinak coming from Bolivia.

Romero’s remarks in Spain came close to approximating the infamous
stereotype of the Ugly American in the prophetic book published 42 years ago.
Romero may justify himself by pointing out that globalism’s newfangled
morality gives him the right to insist on standard norms for democracy and
even political behavior in general throughout the world. He may also consider
that a new hard line from the U.S. is what is needed to force Venezuela into
step. Certainly if the issue were possible electoral fraud as it was in Peru,
Romero’s statement would have produced less controversy and been defended by
Washington policy makers. But in this case, tension stems from Venezuela’s
effort to redefine democracy with the aim of making it more authentic, and its
assertion of an independent foreign policy. A nudge from the U.S.—like the
fatuous remarks of Ambassador Louis Sears in The Ugly American—far
from being timely may backfire by aggravating differences and radicalizing

Ellner is the co-editor of
The Latin American Left: From the Fall
of Allende to Perestroika
(Westview). He has taught economic history
at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela since 1977 and has written scores
of articles as well as three books on Venezuelan history and politics.