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“Chávez’s bark...is far worse than his bite,” says a new Council Special Report, which urges U.S. officials to “look beyond his blustery rhetoric…as long as Chávez does not take steps that fundamentally threaten essential U.S. interests in Latin America.” With polls showing Chávez strongly in the lead in the upcoming December 3 Venezuelan presidential election, the United States needs to prepare for another six-year term with the controversial leader.
In the short term, “the United States should be seen in the region as ignoring Chávez’s theatrics and seeking to work pragmatically on issues of bilateral and regional concern,” such as energy policies and poverty reduction. By doing so, “Washington wins either way—whether Chávez accepts or rejects the American ‘peace’ overture. Such a practical approach, even if it fails to yield significant results, may make Latin American governments more willing to work with the United States collaboratively in an effort to establish a clear set of boundaries that Venezuela will not be permitted to cross.”
“Despite Chávez’s tendency to publicly insult American leaders and whip up anti-American sentiment, the United States and Venezuela remain mutually dependent. Chávez relies on U.S. oil demand to sustain the Venezuelan economy; roughly 60 percent of Venezuelan oil exports are destined for the United States.” In turn, 11 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Venezuela.
The report, Living with Hugo: U.S. Policy Toward Hugo Chávez’s Latin America, was produced by the Council’s Center for Preventive Action and written by the Financial Times’ Richard Lapper.
In the long term, “the United States needs to tackle the underlying problems of inequality and poverty that feed Chávez’s appeal. Restoring U.S. leadership will require a significant shift in how the United States articulates its vision for the Andean region and Latin America as a whole. It is imperative that American government officials begin to directly and openly acknowledge the profound social schisms that most Latin Americans face each day,” says Lapper.
While acknowledging that the United States has a limited set of options, Living with Hugo outlines a series of proactive policy recommendations intended to increase U.S. legitimacy in the region, and thereby indirectly countering Chávez’s appeal.
- Although Chávez’s anti-American rhetoric may be more beneficial to him than the benefits of working bilaterally with the United States, “it may still be possible to pursue a pragmatic relationship with Venezuela.…After the December 2006 presidential election, the Bush administration should offer to hold working-level discussions with Venezuelan officials on a range of specific bilateral issues, such as border security, energy, drugs, and public health. This gesture from Washington would help demonstrate to the region that the United States is trying to work pragmatically with Caracas, despite Chávez’s rhetoric.”
Rhetoric and Regime Change
- The Venezuelan opposition, at this point, does not seem strong enough to unseat Chávez, “through either legal or extra-legal means. …The Bush administration and its successor should make crystal clear that the United States has no intention of intervening forcibly in Venezuela, either overtly or covertly. …All U.S. officials of the executive branch should join the State Department in continuing to moderate the rhetoric used to characterize Venezuela, its head of state, and public officials.”
- The United States should be seen as a neutral party in the upcoming presidential election. The “[United States Agency for International Development], [National Democratic Institute], [International Republican Institute], and all of their grantees in and outside of Venezuela, must be subject to scrupulous oversight and scrutiny in order to guarantee the nonpartisan nature and constitutional commitments of their activities in Venezuela.”
- Chávez’s influence in Latin America has grown over the years and he has not been secretive about his desire to expand this influence. However, “more consolidated democratic and nationalist political cultures in Latin America, especially in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, are generally resistant to the crude populist appeal and interventionist tactics of Chávez. …As long as the United States is seen to covertly support opposition groups and promote regime change in Venezuela, U.S. denunciations of Chávez’s own regional activities will ring hollow.”
- Venezuelan ties with Iranian leaders have become increasingly active, yet the notion that Chávez could, as a result, ignite violent conflict in the Western Hemisphere should not be exaggerated. “Chávez risks alienating those Latin American allies whose cooperation and support are more vital to his hemispheric project. …The United States should seek the support of other Latin American governments in order to warn Chávez to keep his flirtation with Tehran within acceptable limits, such as excluding military or nuclear cooperation.”
Contact: CFR Communications, [email protected]; 212-434-9888