A Venezuelan Paradox
How Latin America's sole remaining dictator outsmarted the world's sole remaining superpower.
Oil and beauty queens. For decades, those were the main story lines about Venezuela that caught the attention of the international media. Not anymore. Now the country seems to spring another surprise every other week. One of the greatest surprises of the Venezuelan crisis is how little Washington has mattered. Another is that Fidel Castro’s Cuba — small, poor, and isolated — has been far more influential in Venezuela than George W. Bush’s mighty America. Few episodes better illustrate the limitations of modern superpowerdom than the outmaneuvering of Uncle Sam by Fidel in a neighboring country that also happens to be one of the United States’ biggest oil suppliers.
The United States could not do much as Hugo Chávez took Venezuelan politics by storm and almost overnight transformed one of the United States’ most reliable partners into its most adversarial neighbor in South America. Last year, despite common perceptions to the contrary, the United States was also surprised when a cabal of Venezuelan military officers and business leaders hijacked a massive civil protest and briefly ousted Chávez. The clumsy, anti-democratic behavior of the plotters and the swift, effective reaction of Chávez’s supporters returned the president to power, once more startling the United States and leaving the Bush administration’s spokespeople sputtering awkwardly about their hesitation to unequivocally condemn the coup. Recently, the U.S. government was surprised again by labor strikes disrupting its oil supplies, just as the superpower contemplated military action in Iraq.
The United States has been just too busy to worry about Venezuela. September 11 took all of Latin America off the map for top U.S. policymakers. Without Islamic terrorists and nuclear capabilities, the region cannot compete for the time of U.S. leaders, who have given scant and intermittent attention to Venezuela’s crisis. Moreover, when a democratically elected president engages in thuggish, undemocratic practices but doesn’t cross lines that trigger international outrage or directly threaten U.S. interests, the options for intervention available to even a superpower remain limited. The tardy, ambiguous U.S. reaction to last April’s attempt to oust Chávez further constrains Washington’s ability to intervene. Democrats in the U.S. Congress wasted no time in denouncing the Bush administration for its handling of the situation. In effect, U.S. policy toward Venezuela was paralyzed by a lack of clear options, an outburst of partisan politics, and the almost exclusive focus of Washington’s policymaking apparatus on neutralizing al Qaeda and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In contrast, Cuba’s attention to Venezuela has been sustained and effective. That is because Havana has had the need, the opportunity, and the means to be the most significant foreign influence in the Venezuelan crisis.
Cubans have no foreign policy goal more fundamental to their economic well-being than ensuring Chávez stays in power. Venezuela’s oil, "sold" under highly advantageous conditions to Cuba, is an important reason but not the only one. The alliance with Venezuela has done wonders to help Cuba ease the political and economic isolation that, thanks to the shortsighted U.S. embargo, has choked the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Venezuelan Air Force pilots report that the equivalent of an airlift between Caracas and Havana has been established. Cuba is cementing its presence in Venezuela by sending thousands of sports trainers, health workers, and other government employees to spend extended periods there; at the same time, a large number of Chávez’s supporters are training in a variety of fields on the island. Most of the Cuban advisers are doctors and athletes, but some of them are political operatives and intelligence officers. Commenting on last year’s abortive coup against Chávez, a European ambassador in Caracas said, "I don’t know which was a bigger factor in returning Chávez to power, the ineptitude of his enemies or the effectiveness of the Cubans, but I do know that both played a role."
Havana not only has strong motives to support President Chávez; it also has the talent and the institutions to do so with great efficacy. The New York Times recently reported that Cuban intelligence has been able to infiltrate some of the most sensitive spy agencies in the United States. Historically, Cuban agents have been either directly involved or have had front-row seats in almost all the revolutions, coups, and guerrilla movements in the Third World. Such experience certainly comes in handy when helping a valuable ally such as Chávez. Cuban diplomacy supported by Venezuelan oil money has also made significant inroads among Caribbean nations, which control an influential voting bloc in the Organization of American States (OAS). Such ties may well help sway the OAS, which, together with a recently created group of friendly nations, is attempting to mediate between Chávez and the opposition.
The Venezuelan situation can only be solved by Venezuelans. But, as the crisis deepens, the role of other countries will be crucial. Perhaps, even the sole remaining superpower will be able to find a way to avoid being outsmarted again by the hemisphere’s sole remaining Cold War dictator.