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Missed Connections in Venezuela

Author: Lee Hudson Teslik
March 17, 2006


A dispute between the United States and Venezuela over airline landing rights is the latest twist in an increasingly craggy relationship. Venezuela is an important U.S. oil supplier that nonetheless misses few opportunities to rail against perceived U.S. arrogance toward Latin America (WashPost). At stake is the right of U.S. airlines to fly into Venezuelan cities, and vice versa. But the dispute plays out against a backdrop of years of angry exchanges between Washington and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, a left-wing populist who has emerged as the United States’ bête noir in Latin America.

Last month, Venezuela’s civil aviation authority announced flights by several American carriers would be either banned or heavily restricted (Bloomberg) if longstanding limitations on Venezuelan airlines were not lifted. Since 1994, Venezuela’s carriers have been subject to special Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight because they fail to meet international safety and security standards—problems that successive governments in Caracas have acknowledged.

The FAA has warned Venezuela that if such a ban is enacted, it is “absolutely certain” the United States will retaliate by halting all incoming flights of Venezuelan airlines (LAT).

Wary of Chavez’s growing popularity within Latin America, the United States has been on something of a charm offensive. This month featured visits by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and by Karen Hughes, leader of the Bush administration’s public diplomacy effort, who touted the “strong and flourishing relationship” between America and Brazil. Polls suggest these efforts are sorely needed. Democracy is less favored (Economist) in Latin America than it was ten years ago, and Latin Americans’ opinion of the United States is hugely unpopular (Zogby). In her new book, Friendly Fire, CFR Fellow Julia Sweig tackles this legacy and how it has spread to other regions. 

2006 is a season of elections in Latin America (BBC), and regional experts like Bruce Stokes of the National Journal have surmised a “leftward lurch.” The victory of anti-globalization crusader Evo Morales in Bolivia and, to a lesser degree, of moderate socialist Michelle Bachelet in Chile, underscore this trend. The next test for left-leaning leaders in Latin America comes April 9 in Peru’s presidential election, outlined in this CFR Background Q&A. The populist candidate, Ollanta Humala, is running almost even (Economist) with the conservative frontrunner, Lourdes Flores Nano.

Over all this, Chavez looms large, at least in Washington’s mind. Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, writes in Foreign Affairs that “administration officials are convinced Chavez is provoking instability,” and questions whether the United States is “losing Latin America.” CFR fellow Julia Sweig is somewhat more upbeat. In a recent interview, Sweig said the leftward shift in Latin American countries is “not a rejection of the market”—one of Washington’s greatest fears. Rather, this trend is “a statement that the existing institutions and the traditional elites cannot deliver.” Rice and Hughes have echoed this optimism, pointing to Chile and Brazil as examples of left-of-center governments with which the United States has sound relations. And yet, poverty in the region remains rampant and democracy indicators are not favorable. The discontent bred by these factors will complicate efforts toward a smooth reconciliation of tensions between the United States and South America.

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