First 100 Days: Obama and Chavez
— Pedro Burelli, a former Member of the Executive Board of Petróleos de Venezuela is a frequent commentator on matters dealing with Venezuela and oil. He is the Managing Partner of B+V Consulting, a corporate finance advisory firm. The views expressed are his own. —
In the early days of his unrelenting scrap with President George W. Bush, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez laid a boastful wager: I will outlast you! For most of eight years, Chavez accused Mister Danger – a favorite moniker – of trying to eliminate him and lobbed countless epithets – drunkard, assassin, devil, coward, illiterate, criminal, donkey are but a sample – against the growingly unpopular U.S. president.
Besides sky-rocketing oil prices, nothing aided Chavez’s domestic standing and international projection more than George W. Bush’s mere existence. Blaring “truth” to power and dispensing petrodollars left and right, north and south, brought Chavez both acolytes and notoriety.
President Bush never once uttered publicly the name of Venezuela’s latest caudillo, nor did he respond to any of his often obscene tirades. Close aides report that he almost lost his cool when Condoleezza Rice became the subject of the obscenities. But he chose not to react as nothing rattles a narcissist more than being ignored…all of the time! In effect, U.S. policy during the second part of the Bush administration was simply to ignore the man and his banter, but painstakingly track his deeds.
While there are mundane topics like energy and commerce that could eek out the beginnings of a dialogue; i.e. $75 billion of bilateral trade in 2008, there are a host of other issues that ensure the parties will remain miles apart. Verifiable facts will continue to impede fruitful dialogue between the U.S and Venezuela. The expectation that the incoming administration in Washington – full of seasoned hands – would shove this information aside and design an agenda to charm and mollify Caracas is ludicrous.
Chavez’s unrepentant liaisons with Colombia’s drug peddling guerrillas remain a threat to U.S. national interests (Read related story from September). The transformation of Venezuela into sanctuary for FARC units and a primary transit route for illicit drugs coming out of Colombia is well documented. U.S. law enforcers have gathered sufficient evidence to designate – and eventually prosecute – three members of Chavez’s innermost circle as complicit.
The unperturbed flow of funds to countless groups in the region, to hot spots in the Middle East and even in the U.S. will remain top of mind. The cast of disreputable characters showing up in Caracas hat-in-hand have turned the place into a XXI century rerun of Casablanca. Embassies have replaced trade and cultural attaches with intelligence officers trained to track such comings and goings, and able to decipher puzzles such as a tri-weekly flights between Tehran-Damascus-Caracas whose mysterious passengers forgo customary immigration controls.
Concerns regarding the state of democracy, human rights and corruption further widen the schism between the two countries. President Obama underlined his concerns masterfully in his inaugural speech, “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West: Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy”, and then added “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Chavez has seen his oil shield weakened by both the collapse of the country’s once dependable oil industry and the downward spiral of oil prices. Now Chavez will have to confront growing domestic perils without the foil of a perfect adversary and the punch of a limitless wallet. Furthermore, dealing shrewdly with historical nemeses Cuba and Iran will take precedence for the incoming Obama administration. Caracas is bound to feel overlooked and might resort – to grab headlines – to its typical self-destructive folly.
You enter this perilous relationship upending every element of Chavez’s comic book characterization of the United States. Yet, you must draw a line in the sand and let it be known that you are neither feeble nor naive. Forgetting and forgiving Chavez’s shenanigans will not produce a change in behavior; at this stage his self-styled revolution is too inane and brittle to coexist with U.S. values and interests. More importantly, you could well squander precious political capital by getting entangled with one who impudently envisions continued conflict with the U.S. “whether the chief of the empire is black or white.”
Mr. President, the people of Venezuela do not need foreign saviors nor can we accept foreign accomplices and appeasers. What’s at stake in Venezuela are basic human rights and democratic principles which are being trampled everyday. You would do well to engage Cuba – a mishandled and moribund basket case – and Iran – a real serious almost-nuclear threat. But on Venezuela, you should walk the path patiently laid by Mister Danger: Shun Chavez the man, help document and assist in the disclosure of his misdeeds, and watch Venezuela’s democratic citizens do the rest.