By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela, Nov. 25 -- The arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and a naval squadron in Venezuela this week is an unequivocal message to President-elect Barack Obama that his most nettlesome challenge in the Americas will be Venezuela's populist government and its oil-fueled crusade against U.S. influence, political analysts say.
President Hugo Chávez, who once called President Bush "the devil," has held out his hand to Obama and expressed a willingness to reengage Washington after expelling the U.S. ambassador in September. Chávez also describes his scheduled meeting with Medvedev on Wednesday and the joint naval maneuvers with the Russian flotilla as friendly exchanges that are not designed to provoke the United States.
But despite Chávez's conciliatory words, Obama faces the task of blunting the pretensions of a country intent on building alliances with American adversaries, including Iran and, critics say, Marxist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. Obama also faces more immediate worries, including two wars, looming questions about Iran's nuclear ambitions and a resurgent Russia.
Venezuela poses no strategic risk. Chávez, though, has worked energetically this decade to fill the vacuum created by declining U.S. influence in Latin America, a product of Bush administration policies that were unpopular here. In the process, Chávez has become perhaps the world's most vocal anti-American leader and structured an alliance with figures unfriendly to Washington in countries as divergent as Nicaragua and Belarus.
"Obama's dealing with a country that in the past eight or nine years has been taking a very strongly anti-U.S. position that puts the United States in a central negative role," said Peter DeShazo, a former U.S. diplomat who oversees the Latin American program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Chávez's whole revolution is based on supplanting the influence of the U.S. in the region."
Under a narrative that has become a cornerstone of foreign policy here, the United States is determined to kill Chávez, seize Venezuela's vast oil reserves and ensure that Venezuelans remain subservient to "the empire." Like his close ally in Cuba, Fidel Castro, Chávez represents those subjugated by the United States. His role is to form a union with like-minded nations to thwart a U.S.-dominated "uni-polar" world.
Venezuela has entered into economic agreements with President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who has been called Europe's last dictator, and signed contracts worth $4.4 billion to buy assault rifles, military helicopters and combat aircraft from Russia. Venezuela has built a tight alliance with Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, who is sharply at odds with the United States, and has subsidized oil sales to Cuba.
"It should not surprise anyone in the United States," Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to Washington until September, said in a recent interview. "From the moment Chávez was elected, he planted the system of multi-polarity, and not uni-polarity."
In September, Chávez said that Venezuela had become a strategic ally of Russia and that the military exercises represented "a message to the empire: Venezuela is no longer poor and alone, exploited and humiliated."
As Russian sailors, decked out in black-and-white uniforms, arrived Tuesday at the port of La Guaira, the Venezuelans made a point of providing a memorable welcome to Russia in its first big military deployment to Latin America since the Cold War. A 21-gun salute greeted the sailors as they lined the bow of the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko. The pride of Russia's navy, the nuclear-powered cruiser Peter the Great, was anchored offshore.
Yet the Venezuelan government's rhetoric was far more subdued than it was in September when the deployment was announced and Chávez declared: "Go ahead and squeal, Yankees." Venezuela has faced hard economic and political realities since Chávez's meeting with Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Russia that month.
The worldwide economic crisis has left Venezuelan crude at $40 a barrel, diminishing Chávez's ability to project himself on the world stage. And Sunday, Venezuela's once-hapless opposition won some of the most important cities and states in nationwide elections, dampening Chávez's efforts to change the constitution to permit his indefinite reelection.
Michael Shifter, a senior policy analyst with Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said it might also become harder for Chávez to cast the United States as the villain with a young, liberal black man in the White House. Still, Shifter said, the Obama administration will probably have many of the same interests the Bush administration has had in Latin America.
"Bush lent himself to that narrative," Shifter said. "He was the perfect foil. My guess is Chávez is going to try to put Obama in that spot, but it will take some work."
The assistant U.S. secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Thomas Shannon, said Chávez is probably trying to adjust to the new realities in Washington. Shannon noted that Chávez has made conciliatory comments.
"So rhetorically, he's actually created all kinds of options for himself," Shannon said. "And he's obviously exploring some options now with this new administration."
The Venezuelan government, through its embassy in Washington, called Obama's election "historic" and said it paralleled the arrival of several left-leaning leaders in South America this decade. "We are convinced the time has come to establish new relations between our countries and in our region, based on respect for sovereignty, equality and true cooperation," the embassy said.
The Venezuelans frequently bring up the question of sovereignty when they express fury at U.S. funding of various civil society groups in Caracas, many of which are opposed to Chávez. Details about that assistance, contained in documents made public in Washington in 2002 after a failed coup against Chávez, have been wielded here as proof the United States helped hatch the plot.
But the Venezuelans also complain that their sovereignty is being violated when U.S. officials raise concerns about issues important to the United States, such as the trafficking of cocaine across Venezuela or the threats made by Chávez against the media and opposition figures.
Political analysts and diplomats say the Obama administration is unlikely to remain quiet about these and other concerns, though the approach might be different from that taken by the Bush administration. If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes secretary of state, the U.S. approach to Venezuela could be tough, especially on issues such as Iran and the fight against terrorism. Clinton, like Obama, is a strong supporter of Israel; her husband is a staunch supporter of Colombia's leadership in its war against drugs and rebels.
Shannon, the assistant secretary of state, said that for now he foresees the Obama administration following through on the Bush administration strategy of building ties with big, friendly countries in the region, such as Brazil and Mexico.
"It will be up to the new administration, I think, to define how it wants to engage with Mr. Chávez and the Venezuelan government," Shannon said. "So at this point in time, number one, I wouldn't hope for too much. But number two, we've got a lot going on in the region, and he's going to have to get in line."