Presidente Hugo Chàvez of Venezuela indulges in some odd ideas. Take, for example, his Oprah-like talk show, which can last three hours. Or his obsession with the idea that liberator-in-chief Simon Bolivar was poisoned to death.1 He also believes in something called the Bolivarian Revolution. This collection of statist and socialist policies policies (like heavier state-to-state economic cooperation) is deeply inefficient and corrupt, but it’s a vision Chavez spreads to poor, stratified countries via kind words and black gold. His commitment to institutional democracy is minimal, partly because he’s venal and partly because he doesn’t believe in it (Venezuelan history as well as Marxism is instructive here). He prefers to go to the people in quasi-free referendums. In short, the Venezuelan president is a revisionist.
To Richard Noriega at the American Enterprise Institute (a place where intentions are continuously—and, in some cases, intentionally—confused with capabilities) the Obama administration and US military are tapping their fingers while Venezuela’s dictator is drugging our children. Indeed, the White House stated for the seventh year in a row that Venezuela has failed to meet the minimum requirements for narcotics enforcement (though Caracas still trails Sacramento). Reports abound that Senor Chavez is “in bed” with Columbian narco-terrorists. But that’s not all. Noriega, who regularly warns of the Havana-Caracas axis (similar to the Fiat-Datsun cabal), also uses the Washington Times to fret over arms purchases from Russia, “suspicious industrial installations” built by Iranian companies, and support for Hezbollah. Get Senor Chavez on the State Department terrorist list! concurs Americas Quarterly.
Cancer-free and ready to change the world! Anybody want some oil?
At the Daily Beast, Mac Margolis writes that Latin American leaders would prefer to accommodate Chavez and other “new Autocrats” rather than confront them. Venezuela recently joined Mercosur, a regional trade area, when veto happy Paraguay was suspended for anti-democratic behavior related to the removal of their president in June. The irony abounds: even assuming that Venezuela is democratic, why join a free trade group? Margolis, while also sensationalist and utopian in his lament against “power politics,” does have a more earthly point than Noriega’s “asymmetric threat” polemic: does the acceptance of oil-rich Venezuela indicate that Latin American republics will compromise with the relatively influential Chavez to get at his country’s consumers and resources? Will such compromises abroad make it easier for other dictators to survive?
Nevertheless, the central problem of the Bush-Obama years remains: US options to stymie the influence of Senor Chavez without risking too much credibility are few. Setting aside the very vague claims of aid to Iran and Hezbollah, even if Chavez is a threat to US power, he isn’t going to do anything quickly or by force. It’s a long process; talking big on the subject and doing little immediately makes Washington look petulant and hands another rhetorical weapon to the chavistas.
The real policy here should be containment; trying to check any underhanded attempts to expand Venezuelan power and letting the regime limp on or die off. It may very well be that by not properly demonizing the enemy Washington only encourages him. Perhaps, but one major oil embargo in 2012 is enough.