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Is Chavez's Influence in Decline? (and Lessons for US Policy with Potential Adversaries)

In an editorial within today’s Washington Post, Edward Schumacher-Matos presents a nice summary of what might be considered a waning in the power of Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez. As Schumacher-Matos describes, on a number of fronts other South American nations have been acting counter to Chávez’s wishes. Ecuador, though considered an ally, has reached out to mend relations with Colombia. Meanwhile, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil provides an independent and forceful political and economic counterweight in the region. And Venezuela may soon be denied membership in Mercosur.

During my time in Caracas I was consistently asked by Venezuelans about my take on Chávez, including his tirades. I humbly answered that while Chávez might hurl insults at the American President (he called George W. Bush a “madman” and Barack Obama an “ignoramus”, only two of many examples), they probably did not matter much if at all to US diplomats. Obama, I explained, ought to continue to calmly brush the critiques aside. Relations with South America are very important to the United States, but in reality Venezuela is not as high a priority in comparison to a number of other countries around the world. In Venezuela, where Chávez dominates all forms of media, he is a big fish in a small pond. More broadly, however, his petrodollars have allowed him (for the time being) to punch above his weight.

In short, the US administration’s diplomatic response to Venezuela has been successful to date. As Schumacher-Matos writes:

“The declining influence of Chávez and possible regional acceptance of the Colombian agreement are due in large part to the administration’s adept ability to extend an open hand and attentive ear to all, even Chávez, and thus not play into Latin fears of a Yanqui bully”.

There is a key lesson here in how the United States reacts to countries and leaders that are often perceived as adversaries. In the case of Venezuela, President Barack Obama has utilized a policy of engagement rather than isolation. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, served as the ideal target for Chávez’s critiques of “imperialists” from North America, Obama’s measured response has taken the wind out of his sails. Chávez benefited by having a clear external enemy such as Bush, who led the US to war in Iraq. The verbal attacks by the Venezuelan President against outsiders allow him to rally supporters at home and to ignore deficiencies in the local economy, wide-scale corruption, and rising crime rates.

Again, Schumacher-Matos explains:

“Critics who demand bellicose policies that might lead to a break in relations with Venezuela should look at the failure of such policies to sway events in Cuba, Iran, North Korea and prewar Iraq. Chávez is a nuisance but not a threat to the United States, and he has to be treated with the hemisphere in mind”.

Perhaps the US approach to foreign relations with Venezuela has implications for its policy towards other potential adversaries?

 

Author

David D. Sussman

David D. Sussman is currently a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University), in Boston, Massachusetts. Serving as a fellow at the Feinstein International Center, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the lives of Colombian refugees and economic migrants in Caracas, Venezuela. David has worked on a variety of migrant issues that include the health of displaced persons, domestic resettlement of refugees, and structured labor-migration programs. He holds a Masters in International Relations from the Fletcher School, where he studied the integration of Somali and Salvadoran immigrants. David has a B.A. from Dartmouth College and is fluent in Spanish. He has lived in Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela, and also traveled throughout Latin America. In his free time David enjoys reading up on international news, playing soccer, cooking arepas, and dancing salsa casino. Areas of Focus: Latin America; Migration; Venezuela.

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