As events unfold in Venezuela leading up the August 15 recall vote that will determine the fate of President Hugo Chávez, the opposition, and the country, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) will be providing timely analyses of developments associated with the event. Over the years, COHA has researched and written extensively on the Chávez presidency and the role of the opposition. In the remaining days before the recall vote, COHA Director Larry Birns and lead scholar on COHA’s Venezuela Desk, Research Associate Mark Scott, will be available by phone and email to answer press inquiries, provide statements, and other information, as well as analysis of events in Venezuela as they happen. In addition, you may find our previously published material on Venezuela on our website, www.coha.org.
As Venezuela’s recall vote goes down to the wire, the country’s Washington-backed opposition is increasingly questioning President Chávez’ reallocation of almost $2 billion of state oil wealth to fund social “missions” targeted at his lower class constituency. Chávez’ critics consider such programs an example of political pandering because they believe Chávez’ “missions” are economically unsustainable and reflect pure self-interest. While the opposition is quick to blame the government for Venezuela’s economic problems, its failure to adequately distance itself from its compromising past of indifference to the plight of the poor is likely to fatally damage its prospects for a victory at the polls on Sunday. Referring to the opposition’s seemingly unchanged self-absorption, Ana María Sanjuán, a sociologist at the Central University in Caracas observes, “the opposition has not been effective in changing that image, that they are something different.” Through its neglect of this issue, the opposition has made clear that its main intent is to cement its close ties to Washington, not to provide long-term solutions for Venezuela’s socio-economic problems.
Chávez’ opponents, however, also face an up-hill battle to attract greater support from their U.S. backers – the Bush administration is engrossed with negative developments in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East, which are far more compelling than what is at stake in Venezuela. Then, of course, President Bush is immersed in a tight re-election campaign, where his past acts of unilateralism and pre-emption have fallen into disfavor with many Americans. The uncertain atmosphere at home should discourage any thought of becoming involved in potentially embarrassing covert actions in Venezuela. The opposition must face the grim fact that even though the U.S. toyed with ousting Chávez by backing the failed April 2002 coup with guidance and funding, Washington is unlikely to do anything obvious to reverse the oppositions’ fading prospects or rescue its hopes to take office by fair or foul means.
Another challenge to Washington’s ties to the opposition is its business-like links to Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. In addition to giving assurances that oil exports from his country to the U.S. are guaranteed, Chávez has offered even greater supplies of oil and natural gas than the U.S. is presently importing. Finally, the U.S. has been reluctant to overtly threaten Chávez’ newly strengthened political position at home, as it would bring on the strong criticism from the OAS and elsewhere in the international community for its brusque treatment of the South American country.
Washington’s Oil Interests in Venezuela
Although Washington can barely conceal its contempt for Chávez’ populist prattle and “Bolivarian” grand balcony pronouncements, the White House has been uncharacteristically reserved during the lead up to the August 15 recall vote. It is no longer so myopically convinced that the business-labor coalition will handily defeat Venezuela’s controversial leader. In fact, almost all of the polls are now trending in the opposite direction.
The State Department has consistently expressed a desire for a fair and transparent referendum process, calling for the OAS and the Carter Center to have free reign in all monitoring events leading up to the vote for Venezuela. But that was its line in Haiti as well, just before the U.S. was able to shovel President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of the country. “If conducted freely, fairly, and transparently, this referendum will be an important step toward the peaceful electoral, democratic, and constitutional solution of Venezuela’s long-standing political crisis,” states Secretary of State Powell. Such a statement, however, is contradicted by the slanderous asides on Chávez that were issued by White House advisor Otto Reich before before he left office and those still being uttered by Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Roger Noriega. The tradition of covert U.S. interventionism in Latin America since the end of World War II is not easily overcome. Can the American people believe that the Bush administration, which has consistently meddled in Venezuela’s domestic affairs during most of Chávez’ tenure, can be trusted to keep its word and respect the referendum’s result without trying to discredit it by coming forth with doubts of its legitimacy?
The U.S.’ call for a clear and transparent balloting process is largely the result of Washington’s increasing dependence on Venezuelan oil due to stepped-up market volatility in both Russia and Iraq. Any political instability caused by charges of electoral fraud or a narrow referendum result might trigger violent domestic unrest, thus interrupting Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S. A disruption of the oil supply from Venezuela would produce the further price surge which the Bush administration most fears. Due to the political damage that high energy costs would indisputably wreak against the Bush re-election bid, Washington might be wary of tampering with the referendum’s results to further its country’s geopolitical interests.
Over the last 50 years, one White House administration after another has brazenly undermined Latin American leftist governments through electoral fraud or violent means. In Chávez’ Venezuela, this interventionism has manifested itself through the U.S.’ persistent willingness to flout autonomous democratic processes by contributing to anti-Chávez organizations that, in at least one instance, have publically sought to overthrow the country’s constitutionally-elected president. In the end, however, all the huffing and puffing of the president’s opponents appears unable to blow Chávez down.