First 100 Days: Obama and Chavez

January 26, 2009

Pedro Burelli — 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.

President Obama:

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.


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Over the years I have read tons of articles about Hugo Chavez at first I thought he was really fascinating and overtime I always blamed Bush and his band of incompetents for making things worse. This commentary has opened my eyes to subtle issues i had not connected. This is a must read piece that has finally made me see the light. We are so polarized in the United States that we are ready to ignore facts. I sure hope Barack Obama is getting similar advice from other quarters. Great piece Mr. Burelli. I just saw your blog and it is very courageous as I gather you are veniezuelan.

Posted by Mark Hopkinstell | Report as abusive

Unfortunately Mr. Burelli, “Venezula’s democratic citizens” are proving woefully inadequate or seriously outnumbered, to accomplish the task. They have sat by while the legislature and judiciary become accomplices to the Chavez dictatorship. They have not caused protest marches, strikes, or civil disobedience to stop the erosion of their freedoms of speech, press, or thought.

Instead they move their wealth or flee to more hospitable neighboring nations, including the U.S. while their country goes down in flames. It is hard to help a people who don’t help themselves.

Posted by Marc V | Report as abusive

Well put, Mr Burelli, and one can only hope that Obama follows the Bush tactic of ignoring Chavez. As to Venezuela’s democratic citizens doing the rest, you are engaging in wishful thinking. The Venezuelan opposition is incompetent and disorganized. They have been outsmarted by Chavez every step of the way. One can only hope that the lot of them join those who already voted with their feet (and checkbooks) and move to Miami or Panama City and engage in futile anti-Chavez rhetoric from there. That would allow a new generation to take over, perhaps drawn from the ranks of the student protestors who did so much more last year and in 2007 than the established “opposition” ever did to weaken Chavez. Unless this happens, Chavez will be in power longer than Obama, even if the latter wins a second term. That’s on the assumption that the price of oil doesn’t stay it its present low levels…

Posted by Julio V | Report as abusive

Mr Marc V, how about outgunned. You have no idea how many have died trying to stop the “erosion.” Or do you?

I don’t know if you are ignorant or a shill

Posted by Chevy Nova | Report as abusive

Gee …. maybe Mr. Burelli can help Mr. Obama figure out a way to get the foreign oil giants back into Venezuela. There’s nothing quite as exciting as raping another country of it’s valuable resources.

I give Mr. Chavez credit for not taking the BS and for not allowing Venezuela’s resources to be exploited.

Posted by gr8pop | Report as abusive

After reading the posts about I read Burelli fine note. I think he does not mention opposition anywhre just democratic citizens. I assume he thought that one out becuse I think it makes sense to assume that most Venezuelans are democrats and eventually will see the light and kick this man out using democratic means. The comments posted above (read Mark V and Julio V) are missing the point that at the end of the day Venezuelans have to do what venezuelans have to do. If they want to keep Chavez despite all the evidence then they deserve him, if they get fed up and vote against hm then they deserve credit. Now is subject were the leadership of the POLITICAL opposition I could not agree more. They are IDIOTIC!!!! or maybe after 10 years all on the take of the wealthy government. They could be had for a few dollars a dozen, one would assume.

Posted by Martin Fox Diaz | Report as abusive

I find it amazing that the Venezuelan ‘democrats’ are in the minority … and a majority of people still vote for Chavez’s socialist party. Perhaps you should all look at the mote in your own eye. I’m no huge fan of Chavez, but he is giving hope to the poor in much the same way Obama has. Who will outlast whom? Who will dissapoint the world’s poor more?

Posted by Graham | Report as abusive

Although chavez connections with the guerillas are real, venezuelan reality is to be studied pragmatically. In the first place neither Chavez nor Obama count on each other existence to define themselves; neither did Bush defined chavez. He built his discourses around the figure of the devil itself, not Bush. And because institutions last longer than men, you should integrate in your piece the fact that global politicies are rarely determined by affection: above all not between the US and Venezuela who are interdependent. Attacking US institutions, with a bad guy representing them, is easier than to do so with a sympathetic man in the oval office. Obama is not Chavez’s end, it is only a change of face, a rebranding of America’s power. Attacking US will be diferent now. When people talked about a new set, it was only in a symbolic level. I find very disturbing that for yourselef, a change in the air is synonim of economic intervention, or other kind of intervention.
Castro has said he wants to talk to Obama. I don’t see where you recognize a white a black world, axed upon an evil side, in all this.
I completely agree in one point though. National venezuelan politics is quite interesting, beware of it. Perhaps one day shall we see a new face in power that acknoledges for example that venezuela is a drug highway and therefore, even without chavez’s support, the narco groups would still use it. This is how we must analyse venezuela today. The grey zone in venezuelan politics are not as clear as we think, dissident chavistas and anti democratic oppositores can assert this.

Posted by fractal | Report as abusive

I find it amazing that people still fall head over heels for mud-slinging and propaganda. Chavez may have his faults but in terms of being corrupt, he is leagues behind the likes of Dick Cheney and the US super-eilte.
People should wake up and look past these issues, and they might then be able to see beyond Chavez v America, or Chavez v the world! …what should be talked about is social justice v neo-liberal greed and hegemony.

Since when did the idea of 20% of the population controlling 80% of the wealth, become a good idea?
I’ll tell you… since the media ceased to be a free-press and became a corporate owned lapdog for neo-liberal globalisation. Look past the tiresome propaganda and focus on the real issues… because you can bet Barack Obama will be doing just that. Chavez is not Venezuela.

Posted by Dan (Dublin, Ireland) | Report as abusive

Chavez is beginning to lose his glimmer because of t he drop in oil prices. He is the typical Caribbean strongman who sees himself as Castro’s succesor, even if Raul Castro is at the helm of Cuba. But rich Venezuelans and politicians are squarely to blame for Chavez because they filled their pockets with petrobolivares and neglected the poor, always a lighting rod for future soldiers-turned-dictators.

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

The compatability of Socialism and Democracy frequently escapes USAmericans because of the Communist-state stereotype which is widespread in the US ( state). Contrary to the popular misconception, young democracies frequently elect Socialist governments.

I am cynical about the motives of any politician, but I do appreciate Chavez for being the standard bearer for the poor that he has been. And I can even sympathize with what I imagine are the motivations for the distasteful moves he has made toward totalitarianism. However, if he cares at all about Venezuelan Democracy, he needs to trust the people to do what’s right for themselves. If Venezuelans are going to really have a say in their government, they cannot allow one man take so much power. On the other hand, the “opposition” needs to trust the people too–no more coups or taking money from the Americans to fund their cause.

Posted by Dan (South Carolina) | Report as abusive

You have written the truth.
But not all the truth.
The rest is more ominous.
Putin, Chavez, Ortega etc
are crypto-communists determined
to implant the Proletary Dictatorship
in Latinamerica.
Luis Rodriguez T.

Posted by Luis Rodriguez Torres | Report as abusive

Chavez seeks to maintain control over his country. No free press. No free voting system. State control over all business and natural resources.

This is why he gets on so well with Putin and Russia, which has exactly the same thing. And why Chavez will never be a friend to the USA.

Obama should go one step further then Bush. He shouldn’t ignore Chavez, he should ridicule him.

eg: “I have no time to respond to an unimportant dictator, especially one with no world influence”

Posted by Spooky | Report as abusive

Congratulations Mr. Burelli. I think we all feel into the trap of anti Bushism and lost track of the reality. Mr. Chavez was dangerous al along and will be much more now that oil prices have crashed. I worked in the oil industry in venezuela – for a multinational – 8 years ago and when i went back late last year I could not belive what I saw. They have destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg. So no eggs and no goose, poor Venezuelans who will suffer now.

Posted by Tim Hafke (Amsterdam) | Report as abusive

gr8pop – I believe you haven’t read the latest news regarding oil and Venezuela and how Chavez is wooing the international oil community once more to ‘rape’ the country as you put it. I agree with the policy of Bush and Uribe, in Colombia, of ignoring him. Nothing could hurt his ego more than being totally ignored. Venezuela is a rich oil country that has been ‘raped’ many times by many interests both internal and external. Venezuelans did see an opportunity for change with Chavez, but his sickening love for Bolívar, who he tries to imitate, derailed his revolution to the point that there is probably more corruption and waste now than ever before. However, Simon Bolívar was a great visionary and had his sights on the greater good for the countries he liberated. Chavez simply uses his name as a whip to justify his actions. There is no comparison between Bolivar and Chavez. The former was a great individual with ideas based on human values and strict desire for the good of the nations, all rooted in his catholic upbringing. The later is simple a buffoon and that is why GWB policy of ignoring him worked so well.

Posted by Dario A Posada | Report as abusive

to bad chavez can’t exploit the resorces himself.

he called the chines and the russians to come exploit-it with him.

great way to stand up to the u.s.

huh gr8pop?

Posted by shame | Report as abusive

This article is great. I think Bush was terrible in every sense, but on Africa and on deling with this idiot Chavez he was right on. The author is gutsy to give Bush any credit at this point in time but it is a fair thing to do. My sense is that Hillary and Co. will be really bad news for this crude despot in the making. It is important to ensure that those in the US like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn are outed for their support of this dangerous anti-USA character. Obama has his hands free to do as Peidro Burelli says. Ignore and help prosecute.

Posted by Maria La Brava | Report as abusive