Uncle Sam and his Venezuelan Rival Should Lay Down Their Knives

A recent visceral assault by the U.S. and Venezuela against each other, while engaging in what few would call traditional diplomatic behavior, has produced an ironic situation in which the two major victims of the fracas—Bernardo Alvarez, the current Venezuelan ambassador to Washington, and Larry Palmer, who was the U.S. ambassador-designate to Caracas—have been terribly misused by each side. Both are professionals who, throughout their careers, have been committed to dialogue and reconciliation. They both have been misused by local politicians with other fish to fry.

When you have a volatile leader like Hugo Chavez, whose objectionable conduct has repeatedly proven to be more bark than bite, and an Obama administration in which a State Department PR functionary, P.J. Crowley, and some of his colleagues utter references to the Venezuelan leader that are more often than not little more than menacing threats, it makes for a volatile situation. Even more dangerously, when each country’s respective position begins to harden and the rhetoric becomes more shrill, the situation can deteriorate faster than either side originally intended. To prevent disaster, such a scenario must be avoided at all costs.

If each side’s bilateral performance to date were assigned a grade, U.S. and Venezuelan responses to each other and their respective gravity, maturity and professionalism, would surely get an F. In terms of assigning proportionate blame to Venezuela and the U.S., it must be said that although Chavez’s rhetoric characteristically is harsh and unseemly, if the shoe were on the other foot, the U.S. would immediately have expelled such an offending ambassador—one who so blatantly indicated he would interfere in domestic affairs, as was the case regarding Palmer in Venezuela from Washington—or canceled his acceptance in the first place.  While President Chavez’s often childish rhetoric and provocative taunts contributed little to advancing his long-range vision for his country and the welfare of its citizens, he is not entirely a wild man who deserves to suffer disrespectful interventions by U.S. officials in Venezuela’s sovereign affairs.

The net result is that positions in both countries have become rigid, while the diplomatic language has become more extreme and less diplomatic, making likely of an outcome that is demonstrably undesirable when it comes to both sides’ basic national interests. President Obama and Chavez would have been wise to have taken some immediate, even dramatic, steps to halt the slide in their relations, because this latest confrontation (added to the many in the past) can only become more toxic and unrewarding.

There are powerful forces at work against the need for abatement of existing tensions between the two countries. Unfortunately, Chavez often fails to display a capacity for prudence as one of his master diplomatic tools, and the Obama administration’s knack for fielding an effective regional strategy has proven abysmal. A commitment to constructive engagement by the U.S. and Venezuela is now what is desperately needed, with no time lost in implementing it.

Such a new stance by the two countries would be particularly relevant for the U.S. if it hopes to implement a secure structure for its Latin America regional policy. Up to now it has not managed to get off the ground. As for Chavez, he is jeopardizing the security of his revolutionary vision and whether it will be around long enough to have a lasting influence throughout the region.

By COHA Director Larry Birns and COHA Research Associate Joss Douglas