Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Empire Makes Nice

Is it time for a Venezuela reset?

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Four years ago, when the first Obama administration was still hopeful about the prospects of resetting relationships with U.S. adversaries in the world, Venezuela was high on the list. "Eight years of isolation has resulted in the kinds of outreach that, I think, both you and I find troubling," then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate in 2009. "Our belief is, if it hasn't worked, why keep it going? Let's see what else might be possible." Things haven't turned out quite as planned, but following the death of Hugo Chávez, the United States may get a new opportunity to improve one of its most frustrating relationships, and find out if a new way of operating might indeed be possible.

Some progress has been made, of course. The Obama administration learned some important lessons from the George W. Bush years. It wisely avoided becoming embroiled in rhetorical tit-for-tats -- a game Chávez played with relish and of which he was the undisputed master. In 2006, for instance, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened Chávez to Adolf Hitler. The Venezuelan president responded in kind at a rally in Caracas, "The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W Bush."

The Obama White House also seemed to accept the fact that, for all his faults and the problems he posed for the United States, Chávez was Venezuela's legitimately elected president. Had there been another attempt to oust him, Obama officials would, one hopes, not have expressed undisguised glee, as the Bush White House did during the brief putsch of 2002.

Four years ago, when the first Obama administration was still hopeful about the prospects of resetting relationships with U.S. adversaries in the world, Venezuela was high on the list. "Eight years of isolation has resulted in the kinds of outreach that, I think, both you and I find troubling," then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate in 2009. "Our belief is, if it hasn’t worked, why keep it going? Let’s see what else might be possible." Things haven’t turned out quite as planned, but following the death of Hugo Chávez, the United States may get a new opportunity to improve one of its most frustrating relationships, and find out if a new way of operating might indeed be possible.

Some progress has been made, of course. The Obama administration learned some important lessons from the George W. Bush years. It wisely avoided becoming embroiled in rhetorical tit-for-tats — a game Chávez played with relish and of which he was the undisputed master. In 2006, for instance, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened Chávez to Adolf Hitler. The Venezuelan president responded in kind at a rally in Caracas, "The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W Bush."

The Obama White House also seemed to accept the fact that, for all his faults and the problems he posed for the United States, Chávez was Venezuela’s legitimately elected president. Had there been another attempt to oust him, Obama officials would, one hopes, not have expressed undisguised glee, as the Bush White House did during the brief putsch of 2002.

Seven years after that failed coup attempt, and three months into his presidency, Obama shook hands and bantered a bit with Chávez at a hemispheric summit in Trinidad and Tobago. (Chávez, ever the showman, gave Obama a copy of a book by leftist historian Eduardo Galeano, a gift presumably aimed at enlightening the incoming president about the evils of U.S. imperialism.) True, Obama has eschewed Bush’s military adventurism, which touched a deep nerve in Latin America. But a more restrained U.S. foreign policy and a commitment to "engage" with the region as "partners" did little to persuade Chávez that Washington had changed its tutelary ways. "Obama, to me, until now, has been a great disappointment." Chavez told CNN in 2010, comparing the U.S. president to a highly rated baseball pitching prospect who "end up being wild."

Today, three months into Obama’s second term, Washington will have to deal with a Venezuela — a country with the world’s largest oil reserves that accounts for roughly 10 percent of U.S. imports today — without Chávez. No one can match the riveting theater Chávez reliably provided — his trademark, strident rhetoric and audacious, provocative moves on the regional and global stages, so often targeted at Washington. Still, after 14 years of distancing and mutual suspicions, the U.S.-Venezuela relationship is sure to be very difficult.

Though uncertainty abounds in the country that Chávez so thoroughly dominated for so long, the most likely scenario is that acting President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s designated successor, will win the election scheduled for April 14. He will benefit from an emotional boost from Chavez’s death and a demoralized opposition that that was thrown off balance by major defeats in presidential and gubernatorial elections in late 2012. Maduro will preside over a government made up of diverse factions that, absent Chávez’s charisma and political shrewdness, will have a hard time staying together — particularly as the country’s already serious economic conditions worsen.

The Obama administration should take two critical facts about Venezuela’s post-Chávez political reality into account. First, since Maduro is not Chávez, he will have little choice but to govern in a different fashion than his predecessor. Lacking comparable magnetism and resources, Maduro will likely be somewhat more accommodating to those Chávez treated with utter intransigence, such as the private sector, foreign investors, and the opposition. Maduro, acting out of self-interest, will need, and look for, political oxygen.

The second is simply the risk of turbulence in Venezuela, especially after the upcoming electoral cycle. To be sure, analysts’ occasional predictions about political violence during the Chávez years were (happily) not borne out. And given the extent of rancor and polarization in the society, it is striking how little political violence there has been (common crime, on the other hand, has skyrocketed). Still, the security situation is far from settled — a militia force of 125,000 answered directly to Chávez — and it would be a mistake to rule out chaotic and perilous scenarios that should be of great concern to the entire hemisphere.

What does this mean for Washington? Assuming that Maduro succeeds Chávez, the Obama administration should be amenable to taking steps toward establishing a better relationship with Caracas. Since the relationship today is practically nonexistent, that would not require a big leap.

It might simply entail opening up channels of communication and seeking to establish an ambassadorial presence in both capitals which — absurdly, given the strong commercial relationship between the two countries — have not existed since 2010. Beyond that, depending on how Venezuela’s economic situation unfolds, it might be worth exploring some degree of cooperation and support in energy. Under Chávez, Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA has suffered from declining production and investment and heavy politicization. Maduro may not want to change that right away — he will need to show that he is a loyal Chávista. But if the country’s fiscal pressures prove untenable, he may have few options, and the United States should be open to helping out. Collaboration on counternarcotics and law enforcement would also be desirable but for the time being are probably non-starters politically, given the depth of mutual mistrust (not to mention that seven Venezuelan officials are on a Treasury Department blacklist for their alleged involvement in drugs and arms dealing).

To its credit, the State Department reached out to Maduro several months ago, and following Chávez’s death the Obama administration has expressed an interest in improving the tense bilateral relationship. Its entreaty was surely not helped by Maduro’s broadside against the United States, just hours before he announced that Chávez had died — a move right out of Hugo’s playbook.

Maduro not only expelled two military attaches from the U.S. Embassy but also intimated that Washington might have been responsible in some way for Chávez’s death. Absent a shred of evidence, Maduro’s words were outrageous, but aimed at proving to the base that he was a worthy heir to Chávez before the election.

But it’s far too early for the United States to give up hope on Maduro. Despite his reckless words in recent days, his ideologically hard-line views, and close relationship with Cuban leaders, Maduro’s style contrasts sharply with Chávez’s. Chávez wa
s a military man, a former paratrooper who attempted a coup in 1992. Maduro was not only foreign minister and head of the National Assembly, but earlier in his career was a union official who negotiated deals. He will be tough rhetorically, but some give-and-take behind the scenes seems feasible — a balancing act Washington will have to understand and deal with. Maduro will likely also confront more dire economic circumstances than Chávez ever did. Politically, he will not be able to afford to reject communication and some accommodation with the private sector.

In fact, Maduro has been instrumental in the Venezuelan government’s constructive role in current peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). His support to what is arguably Washington’s closest South American ally in an effort to bring to an end the only remaining armed conflict in the hemisphere can be construed as an example of his pragmatism.

A peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC (which uses Venezuelan territory as a sanctuary and was supported by Chávez) would reduce a key source of instability in the wider region. To anticipate potential turmoil in Venezuela in the coming period, Washington should be consulting regularly and at the highest levels with South American allies, especially Colombia and Brazil, who have the most at stake should the security situation deteriorate.

Although many commentators have drawn attention to Cuba’s role in the Venezuelan transition, and have particularly highlighted Cuba’s huge dependence on Venezuelan oil and money, Brazil will probably end up being just as influential as the situation unfolds. South America’s undisputed superpower — whose leverage on Venezuela stems from key exports, especially food, and political backing — is chiefly interested in maintaining social peace within its own neighborhood.

In keeping with Brazil’s own governance and political evolution in recent years, Brasilia will aim to keep the situation in Venezuela under control and to encourage moderation, gradualism, and communication on both sides. It does not want trouble on its borders. Venezuela’s recent entry into the Brazil-led MERCOSUR trade group will makes this issue of even greater concern for President Dilma Rousseff’s government. In this respect, there is ample coincidence of interests between Washington and Brasília.

Absent Chávez, Venezuela will continue to be tricky in the second Obama administration. The administration will need to arrive at a more accurate on-the-ground reading of what is happening in the country. It will need to engage in quiet, steady, high-level diplomacy with key allies in the region not only to closely monitor the security situation and guard against dire scenarios but to press for free and fair elections and adherence to the rule of law.

None of this will be easy, and recent history is not encouraging. But Chávez is gone, and although for now some measure of continuity in Venezuela is most likely, conditions of scarcity — in charisma, money, and political astuteness — will soon be acutely felt. It is important not to forget that Chávez was able to do what he did for 14 years for a simple reason — because he could.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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