The Chávez Factor
For the past two years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been a thorn in the side of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. He has been instrumental in revitalizing the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which has resulted in production cutbacks in order to raise the price of crude oil. The Venezuelan president’s oil policies further aggravated Washington when he agreed to supply affordable oil to Cuba.
Also, Chávez has been an outspoken critic of last year’s $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Colombia, claiming it will result in a “Vietnamization” of the region. Tensions have also escalated between Venezuela and Colombia as a result of the U.S. intervention in Colombia, Chávez’s sympathies for Colombia’s guerrilla organizations and several recent diplomatic incidents.
Chávez, a former army paratrooper, was elected in 1998 as a populist alternative to Venezuela’s traditional parties who finally collapsed under the weight of their corruption and failed policies. With overwhelming popular support, Chávez succeeded in introducing a new constitution and even changed the official name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
The new name signifies Chávez’s nationalist and regionalist tendencies. He has been outspoken about the need to redirect the benefits derived from Venezuela’s vast oil fields away from the United States and multinationals towards the 80 percent of Venezuelans who live in poverty. Chávez has also revived South American liberator Simon Bolívar’s dream of a more unified South America.
The Venezuelan president has called for Latin American countries to work together for their own economic benefit and to limit U.S. influence in the region. With the closing of the U.S. air base in Panama, U.S. military presence in the region actually increased with the creation of Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) in Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Aruba, Curacao and Ecuador.
But Chávez has refused to allow U.S. drug surveillance flights from the Aruba and Curacao FOLs to operate in Venezuelan air space. Consequently, they are forced to fly a circuitous route in order to reach Colombia and are unable to track any planes that fly over Venezuela. Normally, such a lack of cooperation with Washington’s drug war would result in de-certification, but the United States is hesitant to impose economic sanctions on its primary supplier of crude oil.
Since coming to office, Chávez has revitalized OPEC and cooperation between member nations is at a level unseen since the oil crisis of the early 1970s. As a result, OPEC countries have agreed to increase or decrease production in order to maintain the price of oil between $22 and $28 a barrel. This decision raised the cost of oil dramatically from the $7 a barrel it was selling for when Chávez assumed office.
The Venezuelan president’s oil policies further angered Washington when he reached an agreement with Fidel Castro to supply affordable oil to Cuba. The Caribbean island will receive 53,000 barrels of oil a day and will be allowed to pay for it in installments. Furthermore, Cuba can also provide Venezuela with medical and other services in exchange for the some of the oil.
The Venezuelan president has been a leading critic of Plan Colombia, which has allowed the U.S. to dramatically increase its military presence in the region. Chavez has claimed that Plan Colombia will only result in an escalation of the violence and will regionalize the conflict by forcing refugees, guerrillas and drug traffickers to seek haven in neighboring countries.
Chavez’s criticism of Plan Colombia and other incidents have increased tensions between Venezuela and Colombia. There have been claims from Bogotá, although no evidence, that Chávez has been supplying arms to Colombian rebels. Furthermore, last year, Chávez allowed two Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla leaders to speak on the floor of the Venezuelan Congress, which resulted in Colombia recalling its ambassador in protest.
Tensions have also been heightened by the flow of Colombian refugees across the border. Venezuela has been criticized by Colombia and human rights organizations for its refusal to acknowledge asylum requests by refugees and its policy of forcibly repatriating them. Meanwhile, Venezuelan ranchers who live near the Colombian border have claimed that Caracas is doing nothing to protect them from cross-border raids and kidnapping by Colombian guerrillas.
Consequently, wealthy landowners are now creating armed paramilitary groups to protect themselves from the guerrillas. It has been reported that the Colombian paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is currently training 100 paramilitary fighters in Venezuela. Chávez has responded to these reports by declaring that the government will not tolerate the existence of private militias in Venezuela.
Colombian President Andrés Pastrana met Chávez in Venezuela last week for two days of talks that focused on the mounting tensions between the two nations. At the top of the agenda for the talks was the recent controversy regarding Venezuela’s refusal to extradite Jose Maria Ballestas, a National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla accused of hijacking an Avianca airliner in Colombia in 1999. Caracas says that Ballestas must first stand trial in Venezuela for charges he falsified documents. But Bogotá claims that international treaties require Ballestas be extradited to Colombia before he stands trial for lesser crimes committed in Venezuela.
The two presidents failed to reach an agreement on the extradition of Ballestas. However, they did announce that the chiefs of both Colombia’s and Venezuela’s armed forces will meet to coordinate intelligence and security operations. They also agreed to cooperate on the Colombian refugee problem and called for the United States to open its markets to textiles and other products that could create jobs as an alternative to coca cultivation. Pastrana also acknowledged that Venezuela might play an important role in negotiations with the FARC and the ELN.
Chávez clearly has an anti-imperialist agenda for Venezuela and Latin America that is primarily directed against the United States. He has been an outspoken critic of the neoliberal economic model being imposed on Latin American nations by the multilateral lending institutions. And much to the chagrin of Washington, which views him as the second-coming of Castro because of his nationalistic rhetoric and support for Colombia’s guerrilla organizations, it appears that Chávez is going to be an influential actor in the region in the years ahead.
As for the mounting tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, in spite of last week’s agreements, it is unlikely that relations will improve significantly as long as Bogotá continues to allow the United States to escalate its military presence in the region. Perhaps Chávez believes Washington’s real goal is to secure Colombia’s vast untapped oil reserves as a means to help lessen its dependence on Venezuelan oil, which would then provide it with some economic leverage against Caracas. After all, the high level of popular support currently enjoyed by Chávez rules out the possibility of a U.S.-inspired coup in Venezuela.