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Chavez’s Referendum and Washington’s Response February 17, 2009

Posted by SV in Democracy, President Obama, South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 16 February 2009, it was announced that Chavez had won his referendum to remove term limits from all political offices, including his own, by a 54% to 46% margin (see story here).   This came after the government spent unknown (but large) sums of money on promoting a positive vote on the referendum, after TV stations (mostly state-run) were required to air speeches and promotions favoring the referendum, and after pressure was placed on the two million state employees to both get out the vote and of course vote “yes” on the ballot.

Chavez therefore shamelessly wielded the full powers of the government at his disposal to push through the referendum (which had failed just last year) that would allow him to run again for president in 2012.  Democracies tend not to function well when one leader maintains executive power limitlessly, a key reason most democracies (both American-style republics and parliamentary ones) place term limits on their executives.  The Venezuelan opposition was obviously disappointed by this vote result, seeing it as a key turn on the steady road to both socialism and dictatorship under Hugo Chavez.  As one commented on seeing the throngs cheering for Chavez, “these people don’t realize what they have done.”

What, then, was the response from Washington to this troubling development?  Condemnation that Chavez had rigged the vote or at least improperly used government tools and money to do so? No.  Statement of support to the opposition to continue its fight to preserve Venezuelan democracy? No.  Expressed disappointment of the results? No.  Silence?? No.  The State Department actually welcomed the results of the referendum, admiring Venezuelans’ “civic spirit” (see here).

Forget President Obama’s pledge to conduct direct talks with Venezuela (which may have had some merit), this is outright validation and support for his style of governing Venezuela.  The Administration has actually supported the results of a referendum that removed term limits from Hugo Chavez, an avowed enemy of Washington, by praising the democratic spirit of Venezuelans.  People voting is not the issue here – what they’ve just voted for is.  What does this say about President Obama and his Administration’s view of valid and legimitate democracies?

What’s more, the US gains nothing in this pitiful attempt at rapprochement with Caracas.  Chavez has already stated that Obama carries the same “stench” as Bush.  Also, with Chavez’s future support seemingly tenuous, it makes no logical sense to endorse his referendum if he may not be reelected anyway.  Why alienate the opposition that may be coming back into power in a few years?

Why am I so optimistic about the future of Venezuela?  Well, with oil at around $40 a barrel, Chavez cannot afford to continue his welfare-state spending and keep the poor happy with wealth redistrubition.  The government in Caracas already spends around 32% of the country’s GDP, levels that will grow more unsustainable as oil remains below the $60 threshold.  Also, with inflation at 36% and foreign debt totalling between $30-40 billion, Venezuela is on a road to hard times.  And hard times almost certainly means punishing the executive in power – Hugo Chavez.

Therefore, Washington’s welcoming and validation of this referendum is certainly an unwise and destructive move.  By lending even a little more legitimacy to Chavez, he may well be able to strengthen his hold on power.  With the world economy likely to remain chaotic for the next several years, all the US had to do (this is simplifying it a bit) was sit and wait (and maybe proactively invest in surrounding South American countries) for Venezuelans to vote Chavez out of office.  Instead, we may be setting him up to be the next Castro, a thorn (and much bigger one) in America’s side for decades to come.

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Our Own Backyard No More December 6, 2008

Posted by SV in China, Immigration, President Obama, Russia, South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On Friday, 5 December 2008, the Russian destroyer Admiral Chabanenko traversed the Panama Canal, the first time a Soviet or Russian warship has crossed the canal since WWII.  Though the Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis stated that the only signal of this was that “the canal is open to all the world’s ships,” it is really indicative of the waning of American influence in Latin America.  This comes after the Russiasn Navy conducted joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy, an action clealry intended to signal Moscow’s growing assertiveness and Venezuela’s desire to thumb its nose at the United States.

So why is a Russian destroyer crossing the Panama Canal or joint Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises a cause for concern?  The US has essentially been neglecting Latin American relations while other great powers are conducting their own “charm offensives” among the governments south of San Diego.  While the anti-immigrant movement and anti-NAFTA rhetoric within the US is part of the problem, most of the blame lies with an inattention to our neighbors to the south.  Not only has Russia been active in the region with such welcoming countries like Cuba and Venezuela, but China has also been investing heavily in many of the Central and South American countries, especially Panama.

Though it may sound good that the canal is “open to all,” that means it no longer serves US interests primarily and, in fact, could be closed to the US in the event of a conflict.  China is not making diplomatic trips and investing in Latin America because of their good nature, it is attempting to tear down the fence around our backyard and redefine where the property line runs.  These Russian and Chinese actions spell what could be the death knell of the Monroe Doctrine if significant action or responses are not taken in the next administration.  Powers from outside the Western Hempisphere are being allowed to get involved in Latin American affairs, and the US response is nonexistent.

The truth is that this is not the end of a waning American influence across the world.  As US primacy recedes, our rivals will attempt to take as much of it as they can.  If Russia can conduct military exercises in the Caribbean, it is only a matter of time before it sends forces to the Mediterranean (it announced on Friday it would send its sole aircraft carrier to the Atlantic and Mediterranean for “combat training”).  If China can gain influence over the operation of the Panama Canal, it should be relatively easy for Beijing to gain de facto control over some of the other “keys that lock up the world,” such as the Straits of Malacca off of Singapore or the Suez Canal (should Mubarak’s government ever fall).   Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is going to be left with the task of reasserting American primacy in Latin America and working to keep key nations like Panama, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil in the US camp.

Chavez and his Bad Neighbor Policy December 5, 2007

Posted by SV in South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez seems to be acting in a very antagonistic way in recent months not only to the United States but to his Latin American neighbors as well.  It seems obvious that Chavez is attempting to create Venezuela and himself into something Castro and Cuba never could be – an economic as well as ideological menace to the United States.  With oil at record prices, Chavez seems to think Venezuela’s chance to dominate the region is at hand.

He recently, in the fashion of Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte, sought to change the state’s constitution so that he could be reelected indefinitely, basically becoming a president for life.  He even boasted to supporters that he “will be the head of the government until 2050,” again trying to become a Castro-like figure and rule for life.  Concerned about U.S. interference to the point of paranoia, he claimed that if the American government attempted to support his opponents, he would cut off all oil exports to the United States.  Becoming further antagonistic, he stated that “Anyone who votes ‘No’ [on the referendum] is voting for George W. Bush.”

His personal hatred towards the American president (also exemplified in his “Devil” comments at the UN General Assembly) has caused him to almost become a pariah in the respected international community.  Most nations’ leaders, however they feel about President Bush, do not talk about him with rhetoric that is often saved for wartime enemies.   However, with the narrow, 2% defeat of his referendum, he has not cut off oil exports and seems to be willing to let his term end in 2012.

Closer to his home, Chavez recently severed most diplomatic ties (though not relations – yet) with Colombia, which shares a 1300 mile border with Venezuela.  This was in response to the Colombian President Uribe removing Chavz from his role as a mediator between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.  The cause – Chavez violated peace talks by meeting directly with the head of the Colombian Army and, according to Uribe, fostering an “expansionist project.”  Chavez responded to this by not only recalling his ambassador but also by calling Uribe a liar and refusing to deal with him or his government.

It thus becomes increasingly evident that Chavez believes he has more clout than he actually has and he believes he can thumb his nose at world leaders he is angry towards.  It also appears as though Chavez, whose government may be clandestinely supporting the training of terrorist groups in South America or supplying of FARC rebels, may be trying to instigate a crisis in Colombia to expand Venezuela’s power (a la a the Sudetenland seizure).  Whatever the case may be, Chavez has become a petty dictator attempting to drastically increase Venezuela’s power at the expense of his neighbors and, especially, the US.  While the recent vote was a setback for him, never underestimate the ability of a tyrant to break promises and reassert his authority, especially on top of a barrel of oil.

Death of a Dictator December 11, 2006

Posted by SV in Democracy, South America, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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So former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet has passed away at the age of 91 years old in a hospital bed surrounded by his close family. Hardly a fitting way to go for a repressive dictator, especially compared to the portrayal of a fictonal assassination of the sitting US president in the film this title parodies. Just 16 years after Pinochet ceded control of Chile, Latin America is already making firm steps on the path to democratization.

The region has had a complex and troubled history, to say the least. For much of the two centuries following independence, it has been ruled by a variety of “caudillos” (strongmen) and entrenched elites. During the Cold War, Latin American states were often governed by Marxist-friendly dictators or rightist anti-Marxist dictators, both of which were heavily repressive. It cannot go without mentioning that the United States played a direct (though unofficial) role in the replacement of Chile’s Marxist president Allende (r. 1970-73) with General Pinochet. Though his 17-year reign was less oppressive than other nations (notably Argentina) and resulted in around 3,000 documented political deaths, it is still a black mark on the record of the US.

Nonetheless, much has changed in the 33 years since we acted with such short-sightedness and traded one democratically-elected dictator for one more friendly to the West. America no longer makes it a policy to replace unfriendly regimes with more friendly dictators, though other nations may do that themselves (such as Pakistan). Instead the Bush Doctrine has marked a dramatic departure from Cold War policy in its promotion of universal human rights and the penultimate goal of spreading democracy around the world. Though much of the discussion concerning this doctrine focuses on the Middle East, its application to Latin America should not be ignored. The death of Pinochet reminds us how much progress has been made in the region, with the only repressive dictators (all leftists) being found in Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Democracy is on the march around the entire world, and the passing of Argentina’s former strongman illustrates how much progress has been made south of our border.

Venezuelan President Dramatically Increases Military Size, Alleges U.S. Invasion April 3, 2006

Posted by Adam Nowland in South America.
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An Associated Press article today focused on South America's "mini-Castro", Hugo Chavez, the 'President' of Venezuela, and his efforts to begin training large numbers of citizens into a militia who's main goal is to protect against the United States.  This is the latest in a series of actions taken by Chavez that is likely to antagonize the U.S. and her allies, and it is likely a ploy to gain more support from other leftist leaders in the region.  Chavez's plan calls for a militia force, known as the "Territorial Guard", and a one million man reserve army beyond that.  It should also come as no surprise that the article states Chavez has reached a deal to buy arms from Russia, showing that even after the Cold War has ended, there is no shortage of nations opposed to the United States that are being supported by Soviet-era weaponry. (more…)