You are hereFrom Chavez’s Twilight to a Republican Dawn

From Chavez’s Twilight to a Republican Dawn

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Publication Date: 
17 December 2010

Six years ago this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro launched the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America, a coalition that was to serve as an alternative to the Washington-touted Free Trade Area of the Americas.

At the time, Latin American observers believed many countries in the region were marching to the left and soon the continent would be divided politically in two: the east with Caracas and the west with Washington. Some prominent politicians in this city even warned of the dangers of the coming “Cuba-Venezuela-Brazil axis.”

Such ominous predictions never panned out, and while the Chavez/Castro coalition, known by its Spanish acronym ALBA, did grow to eight members, few would argue that it became the powerful block and counterweight that Chavez envisioned.

This is truer now than ever as recent hemispheric-wide events reveal. Last month at the Organization of America States, Venezuela was the lone ALBA nation to support fellow member Nicaragua in its border dispute with Costa Rica. Also last month, at a gathering of defense ministers of the Americas, ALBA member Ecuador broke ranks and refused to derail a U.S. proposal for better management of natural disaster response in the region.

ALBA’s twilight, if such a word can be used to describe the perpetually feeble alliance, comes just as Chavez’s domestic popularity seems to be on the wane. In elections this September, Venezuela’s soaring crime rate and its economy, second only to Haiti in the Americas for poor performance, helped break Chavez’s two third majority in the Venezuelan Congress.
Obama officials might look at these developments with some sense of relief. And they might argue that paying Chavez little heed has paid off and all that remains is to watch his influence dwindle further.
But Chavez hasn’t given up and over the next two years President Obama’s Venezuela policy -- or lack thereof -- will be put to the test.
Chavez has been using the current lame-duck session of the Venezuelan Congress to dig in before the 2012 presidential election. Earlier this month the outgoing Congress appointed nine new Supreme Court justices, each of whom will serve 12 years. Chavez also has obtained decree powers for up to 18 months.
During his daily press briefing on Dec. 15, Assistant Secretary of State, Philip J. Crowley, criticized Chavez’s recent moves as “subverting the will of the Venezuelan people” and added that the September elections “gave the Venezuelans the opportunity to send a clear message to the government.”
This type of bland, non-committal language exposes a policy vacuum that extreme anti-Chavites will be happy to fill. Next month, when Republicans regain control of the House, two of the most outspoken critics of Chavez’s influence in the region will assume prominent positions.

Ileana Ros Lehtinen, the veteran Cuban American representative from Southern Florida, will become chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Pledging to “isolate and hold our enemies accountable,” she will likely miss no chance to hold hearings and grill Obama officials for their soft treatment of Chavez.

The same or more can be expected from Representative Connie Mack, the incoming chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, who has called Chavez “a sworn enemy of the United States.” Mack has called for sanctions against Venezuela for its relations with Iran and for sponsoring terrorism.

The chances that Republicans will succeed in dramatically changing U.S. policy toward Venezuela are slim. “One would hope they have learned,” as Michael Shifter, president of the Inter American Dialogue, put it. Still in their pledge to “play hardball” these leaders will likely give Chavez a boost, providing him “proof” that the Yankees have nefarious designs for Venezuela.

The fact is, whether passive or aggressive, strictly working bilaterally is a lost cause. The current impasse between Venezuela and the U.S. over Obama’s nominee for ambassador to Caracas is further proof. (Chavez rejects veteran diplomat Larry Palmer for having spoken of “low morale” among Venezuela’s armed forces.)

The strategy that remains is that suggested by Leopoldo Lopez, leader of Popular Will, an opposition movement in Venezuela. In an interview this week Lopez said that “the road forward should be to strengthen the multilateral approach,” through the OAS, the body best suited to protect democracy and human rights in the Americas.

Interestingly, more than a year ago senior State Department officials pledged to do more to bolster the OAS and its “mechanisms for the collective defense of democracy.” That the OAS continues to be painfully silent in the face of myriad abuses of basic democratic principles in Venezuela and other countries is evidence that the Administration Obama has yet to back its pledge with action.

To publish Ms. Sanchez’s column, please contact the New York Times Syndicate:

Isabel Amorim Sicherle
in Sao Paulo
55-11-3812-5588
[email protected]

Ana Muñoz
in New York
212-556-5177
[email protected]