A roadmap is ready
History, evidently, has not ended in Latin America. Amidst the «sequester» storm battering the Washington political circuit incessantly, United States President Barack Obama could still see a silver lining among the dark heavy clouds and he scrambled to express an interest in a «constructive relationship» with Venezuela. Hardly had President Hugo Chavez breathed his last.
But Obama who is never lost for words sounded uncharacteristically curt and seemed unsure how to necessarily phrase his offer of condolences. The US political elites somewhat made up for it – the elites who are so polarized that they may not even agree that the earth rotates around the sun closed ranks immediately to peer through the binoculars at faraway Caracas and cry ‘Land, ho!’
Chavez evokes strong feelings in the American mind. The Republicans on the Hill gloated that it is a good thing that Chavez died. Both the Democrats and the Republicans visualize that a chance has turned up to put behind the long period of strained US-Venezuelan ties and open a new page.
However, as the day wore on, the US state department stepped in to hold a special briefing, which gave a nuanced American reaction, perhaps in an attempt to finesse the intemperate political outbursts of the Congressmen as well as to convey a complex set of signals to the leadership in charge in Caracas…
Devoid of rhetoric, the state department briefing signaled Washington’s readiness to deal with post-Chavez Venezuela, but with the important caveat that the presidential election should be held within 30 days as mandated under the constitution; it should provide a «level playing field» for the opposition to participate; and, it should be held in a free and fair manner with foreign observers who would need to be convinced that «democratic principles» have been adhered to.
The unnamed senior state department officials lamented that Chavez made a practice of using Uncle Sam as a «foil, using us as sort of a straw man that could be attacked», and they admitted «just how difficult it’s been to try and have the positive relationship with Venezuela that we’d like… a productive, more functional relationship».
They repeatedly identified specific areas where there could be mutual interest, «where our [American and Venezuelan] interests coincide» – counter-narcotics, counterterrorism, trade and economic ties, energy. They said the US will «see if there’s any space to work these things… if there’s space to do so on their [Venezuelan] side, then we’ll find out» – although, «at least initially, I don’t see this changing very much.» On the whole, therefore, the US will adopt a «step-by-step process during which we will continue to speak out and to defend the democratic principles… we’ve set out sort of a roadmap, if you will, of the way we’d like to do this, a sort of step-by-step process.»
Reading between the lines, the Obama administration is groping for a way forward, given the high probability that Chavez’s right hand man and Vice President, Nicolas Maduro might be the dominant power to emerge in the forthcoming presidential election.
Washington will pursue a twin-track approach to him by piling pressure on the pretext of its concern for «democratic principles» while looking for an opening for a «constructive relationship». This is a well-honed approach that US has deployed over time not only in Latin America but elsewhere too. But whether it will work in today’s Venezuela remains to be seen. Chavez’s departure does not mean the end for the Left in Venezuela. Nor can the US administration overlook the huge political significance of the allegiance openly expressed by the Venezuelan military to Maduro.
Playing the long game
Clearly, leftism has deeply penetrated the Venezuelan society and in the short term at least, Maduro will inherit the mantle of leadership. The Venezuelan opposition, which broadly represents the interests of the middle class, lacks the clout today to tilt the prevailing balance of power in its favor. Even detractors would admit that Chavez repeatedly secured legitimate mandates to rule through genuinely democratic elections. In short, the US’s «roadmap» and «step-by-step process» will aim on the one hand to rattle the Maduro government so as to compel/coax it to «constructively» respond to Washington’s overtures while on the other hand play the long game.
The two chilling expressions words in the entire state department briefing – «roadmap» and «step-by-step process» – would suggest that Uncle Sam has every intention to discredit Chavisomo, the teachings of Chavez, now that the bizarrely compelling populist socialist gadfly of immense charisma has vacated the stage. Evidently, Washington has no intentions to leave Venezuela alone to work out its own way forward at such a defining moment in its history. So much is at stake.
First of all, there is the oil. Chavez took back into native hands the control of Venezuela’s vast oil resources. In 2007, he began pushing for national control of the country’s oil industry. His actions led to the abandonment of the big Orinoco projects by Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips. Yet, US refineries continue to import more than 1 million barrels of Venezuelan oil per day, which is the second biggest source of US oil imports, next only to the supplies from Canada. But other international companies have established themselves – notably, from Russia and China. To be sure, a grim struggle lies ahead with the Big Oil striving to regain at least some of the lost ground, apart from elbowing out competitors, when the widespread expectation is that Venezuela may likely increase its oil production.
Venezuela has proven crude-oil reserves of 297.57 billion barrels, according to a 2012 report from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. It, however, produces only 2.9 million barrels per day and exports 1.6 million barrels per day. (In comparison, Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s biggest producer, has smaller proven reserves of 265.41 billion barrels, though it produces 9.3 million barrels per day and exports 7.2 million barrels per day, according to the OPEC.)
Venezuela’s oil sales to China have soared and Chavez signed a $40 billion loan agreement with Beijing that firmed up China’s assured access to Venezuelan oil. Again, Chavez provided Cuba with all the oil it needed, which was lifeblood for that country’s struggling economy as it found its way to make its difficult transition in the post-cold war era in the face of the relentless hostility from Washington. Venezuelan oil forged the Cuba – Venezuela axis, which proved a game changer in regional politics. Havana sent thousands of health workers to Venezuela who helped Chavez implement his social project for the poor. The Cuban security advisors helped Chavez neutralize the US machinations against his government.
Over and above, it was oil again that prompted Chavez toward his initial diplomatic focus on reviving the oil exporters’ cartel known as the OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] with the agenda of boosting Venezuela’s revenues. And that, in turn, brought him into contact with a leader whom the US wants the entire world to ostracize – Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The proximity between the two blossomed into a close friendship and alliance in no time, nourished by their shared antipathy toward the US policies.
Suffice to say, oil will remain a key factor in the US policies toward Venezuela. But at the end of the day, Chavez’s legacy cannot be reduced to that of an oil salesman. The point is, he hurt core US interests regionally and globally in a profound – and possibly enduring – way that makes it difficult for Washington to forgive him easily.