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Sweig: 'War of Words' Between Washington and Chavez Continues to Escalate

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
March 29, 2005


Julia Sweig, the Council’s expert on Latin America, says that since the failed coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002, relations between Washington and Caracas have deteriorated, with Chavez arguing that the United States was involved in the coup and planning his assassination, and Washington arguing that Chavez is untrustworthy.

“This war of words has escalated,” says Sweig. “Partially, that’s because the Bush administration’s Latin America hands have a kind of gut rejection of Chavez. He has provided and does provide subsidized oil to Castro’s Cuba. He is taking on, rhetorically, the traditional American hegemony in Latin America and using his astronomical oil revenues not only to boost his political base at home, but also to build diplomatic capital in Latin America and internationally.”

She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 29, 2005.

Relations between Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez and the United States have been frosty for the last couple of years. What’s going on now?

The relations really began to deteriorate substantially after the April 2002 coup [during which civilian opposition leaders and some dissident military officers seized power but, in the face of popular protests, allowed Chavez to return as president within 72 hours]. Many Venezuelans believe the United States winked at the incident. Although the Venezuelan government and Chavez initially played down an alleged American role in the coup, relations have since gotten worse. Chavez and the government have revived not only accusations that the United States was behind the coup, but also, more recently, [have alleged] that the United States may be planning an assassination attempt on Chavez. This war of words has escalated.

Partially, that’s because the Bush administration’s Latin America hands have a kind of gut rejection of Chavez. He has provided and does provide subsidized oil to Castro’s Cuba. He is taking on, rhetorically, the traditional American hegemony in Latin America and using his astronomical oil revenues not only to boost his political base at home, but also to build diplomatic capital in Latin America and internationally.

Would you say that Chavez is trying to become another Castro, except he has oil and Castro doesn’t?

No. You can say that Castro had the Soviet Union as his insurance policy, and Chavez has oil, but it’s a different era and a different country. And although Chavez increasingly uses the language of socialism and revolution, especially since Chavez won the referendum [to force him from office] last August, he has really felt vindicated. It’s the fifth election that he’s won. His poll ratings are higher than they’ve ever been, and he has felt politically vindicated, and therefore, has escalated his rhetoric and also his spending on social programs, the kinds of social programs that Castro also invested in. And so there are parallels, for sure, in terms of the aura of class conflict that one would have felt in the 1960s in Cuba and the palpable feeling of class conflict in Venezuela today.

But the two individuals, in terms of their leadership abilities and styles, are quite different. So I wouldn’t make a direct comparison, but what they’re doing has now become similar. One major difference is that Chavez needs the private sector, and he needs to function in an international economy that is a capitalist economy. And so he can’t take Venezuelan wealth and socialize it entirely. There are some big caveats to that on the land reform front. And, you know, land reform is something that the United States has never been able to countenance in Latin America, starting in 1954 in Guatemala when we overthrew an elected government principally because its land reform initiatives were unacceptable to American capital. Castro’s land reform program was equally a challenge, even though it was proposed under international law and with full compensation.

Chavez is now making a big play of the need to make Venezuela less dependent on food imports and is going after, in his land reform, idle land. In Latin America, the issue of land titling is a major one, and one of the problems with having legal, constitutional, and appropriately compensated land reform is that there is often a very murky path to proper land titling. So in order to establish who owns something, you have to have a piece of paper, and what the Venezuelans are saying is that, if an alleged land owner doesn’t have the piece of paper to prove that he’s an owner, that property is going to be nationalized. And they are nationalizing, even in some cases without compensation, some large land holdings, and putting peasants on them to produce beans, rice, and corn oil.

I see. Is this alienating the wealthy?

Absolutely. Partially, this is creating enemies of foreign owners of major land companies; the big target of one nationalization [effort] is a British-owned company. But this plan is also directly going after those individuals who Chavez thinks are in Miami, or in any case, out of the country, holding onto land that could be better used for the country’s poor. Incidentally, these are individuals that he believes have been supporting the opposition and its attempts to overthrow him. So it does have a lot of political content as much as social content.

Let’s talk about oil for a minute. The United States imports sixty percent of Venezuela’s oil?

That’s correct.

And Venezuelans, as far as I can tell, have always pledged that will continue, despite the political friction.

Well, they have pledged that. But recently, the rhetoric has gotten tenser. It began, again, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s testimony during her confirmation hearings, in which she was very nasty toward Chavez. The Venezuelans have now said that if the United States threatens Venezuela’s security, Venezuela will respond by cutting off oil. Venezuela is in the process of diversifying its customers, so it’s cutting deals with Brazil, Argentina, India, and China, diversifying its dependence, which is politically motivated, but also part of a broader process to become a bigger player internationally.

Chavez sees himself as part of a new geopolitical order; those are his words. And so, for example, today, he’s having a summit with the new Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis [Rodriguez] Zapatero, [Brazilian President Luiz Inacio] Lula [da Silva], and the President of Colombia [Alvaro Uribe]. And he hosted [President Mohammad] Khatami of Iran not long ago. There have been major delegations from China and from India. He sees himself as leading a new geopolitical order as an alternative to the great American hegemony. Chavez characterizes the war in Iraq essentially as an oil grab for the United States, and deduces from that—and says this to his public—that since Venezuela is such a huge producer of oil, Venezuela might become the target of a similar war, and therefore, needs to defend itself. That’s how he rationalizes his recent purchase of 100,000 AK-47s from Russia.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has raised the question of what Chavez is going to do with all those rifles.

Everybody has raised the question. I mean, an army has the right to arm itself, but that’s a very large number. They’re also thinking of buying 36 aircraft from Brazil, and they have old F-16s from the United States. They can’t get the replacement parts, because the United States won’t sell them weaponry, but in another ideological, political moment, Venezuela would be buying our light arms and our aircraft, and the United States would be willing to sell them.

Let’s talk about Chavez’s influence in the rest of Latin America. Is he seen as a popular hero in other countries?

You know, yes, to a certain extent he is seen that way—in many ways, similar to the way that Fidel Castro was seen that way in the 20th century. But he’s also seen with a good deal of skepticism. His grandstanding, his very hostile and unnecessarily provocative anti-American rhetoric, is seen with a degree of skepticism by regional leaders and by a population that has already lived through the Cold War and wants to try to move on from that kind of tension with Washington. But, having said that, there’s a lot of anger at Washington and disillusionment with the perceived failure of the Washington consensus and the economic model of the 1990s. Latin America has undergone a decided shift to the left in the last year. Lula in Brazil, [President Nestor] Kirschner in Argentina, [President] Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay, and Chavez are all left-of-center. Chavez plays on that, and he is given a hero’s welcome when he goes to the World Social Forum [an annual meeting organized by left-leaning organizations as an alternative to the Davos World Economic Forum] and speaks to the region and the world’s left. So I would say that he is welcomed enthusiastically, but also viewed skeptically, but as a member of a community that his neighbors will live with.

Let’s talk about Washington’s policy toward Latin America. Does it have a coherent policy?

No, Washington doesn’t have a coherent policy toward Latin America, and it seldom has had one. So in that respect, we have continuity from the Bush administration. The primary focus from Washington in Latin America is on security and trade—just as, during the Cold War, the primary focus was on security and anti-communism. The U.S. Southern Command [the unified military command responsible for all U.S. military activities in Latin America south of Mexico] has one of the largest voices in the United States on Latin America, and it is focusing on the war on terror and the extent to which Latin America leaves the United States vulnerable to terrorism because of its own “ungoverned spaces”—that’s the Pentagon’s language.

And what Latin Americans see is a United States that is fickle on what ought to be its greatest priority, which is democracy. So that takes us back to the 2002 coup. The tacit support from Washington for the overthrow of Chavez was read by Latin Americans as an indication that Washington is willing to support a democratic leader when he or she is our S.O.B., but not when he represents an alternative ideological philosophy. And it’s not just Venezuela where that kind of perception is fed. It’s Bolivia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador—all of which are countries where the United States has put its nose into electoral politics in ways that have undermined its credibility in the region.

In Bolivia, wasn’t there a popular uprising over the elections?

Well, Bolivia is a long and complicated story, but the long and the short of it is that in 2002, when there was an election campaign underway, our ambassador made a comment to suggest that, if a president was elected that opposed our counter-drug policy, the United States would not look well upon it. And he was talking about a person who was, at the time, a quite obscure cocalero [a term used to describe peasants who grow cocoa leaf] peasant leader named Evo Morales. Morales is now a national figure and a viable candidate to be Bolivia’s next president. Anyway, the point is that in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the Bush administration has stuck its nose into electoral politics in ways that have undermined America’s credibility on the democracy front.

Let’s finish up with your specialty, Cuba. When we last talked, you were very critical of the new U.S. law that was passed that limited visits to Cuba. Has that proven to be very negative?

Yes, it proved to be negative. In fact, Bush, as a result, lost about 13 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida in comparison to the 2000 election. It wasn’t enough for him to lose Florida, but if the Cuban-Americans had been the swing vote, as they were in 2000, he would have lost it. So, it took a political toll, and it’s taken a toll on Cuban families. And also, the Bush administration has expanded its effort to squeeze down by reinterpreting a [U.S.] Treasury department regulation governing agricultural [exports] to Cuba. Prior to this reinterpretation, Cubans could purchase American agricultural goods for cash, and pay for the goods upon receipt of them, as everybody does in international trade. Now, the new rule is that they have to pay for the goods in advance of receiving them. The agricultural lobby in the United States is up in arms about this. It’s a bipartisan uproar that the Bush administration has created.