Venezuela: Towards a More United Western Hemisphere

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Nicolás Maduro (right) has taken the reins of Venezuela from his mentor Hugo
Chávez, and is having a harder time than he anticipated keeping the nation
afloat. Image from Newswire.

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Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela for fourteen years, was a vehement critic of the United States and its “imperialist” policies. A leftist politician with close ties to Castro in Cuba, the charismatic Venezuelan was nonetheless more eager to embrace anti-Americanism than any specific political ideology. His often extreme rhetoric, coupled with the extraordinary economic clout of oil exports, granted him a position of leadership among Latin American countries opposed to U.S. policies in the region. This leadership was formalized in the strategically weak but ideologically influential Alianza Bolivariana para Los pueblos de nuestra América (ALBA). But Chávez’s death in March 2013, coupled with the declining popularity of his hand-picked successor, marks a unique opportunity for the United States to build bridges throughout Latin America and particularly in those areas which have displayed the most frustration with U.S. policy. In fact, Venezuela’s position as an established leader of anti-U.S. sentiment (including close ties with Russia and Iran) indicates that improved relations with Venezuela could ease tensions worldwide. But only through patient and consistent offers of reconciliation and negotiation can the United States achieve any progress with Venezuela and ultimately pave the way for a more united Western Hemisphere.

The current U.S. focus on Venezuela is primarily a result of a recent squabble between the two countries. On September 30, 2013, Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro announced the expulsion of the top three U.S. diplomats from the embassy in Caracas for plotting with enemies of the state. The next day saw a U.S. State Department response, which declared that Venezuela’s top three diplomats would be expelled from Washington in the following words: “It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action. It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries and not a serious way for a country to conduct its foreign policy.” The exchange typifies the generally fruitless negotiations between the two countries—tit-for-tat—and suggests the need for a different way of approaching a very frustrated Venezuela.

Venezuela Bolivar

This 10,000 Venezuelan bolivar note is officially worth about $1,650 US (the exchange rate is capped at 6.3 bolivars to $1 US), but it trades on the black market for only ~$275 US, the result of an inflation rate of almost 50% from October 2012 to October 2013 (the black market exchange rate is about 36 bolivars to $1 US). This inflation is threatening to undermine the entire Venezuelan economy.

But the situation is not just a simple matter of frustration with Washington’s foreign policy; things have also gone badly for Maduro since his election. The country’s inflation rate (around 45%, the highest in the Americas) has eroded purchasing power both abroad and at home, while its own government indicators mark a scarcity of even the most basic goods. These conditions indicate that Venezuela, despite its blustery front and supposed ideological differences with the United States, may be more willing to engage in dialogue with its largest trading partner than ever before.

U.S. foreign policy, in this unique situation, must respond with patience and, in appropriate situations, humility. If the current economic situation continues, Maduro’s re-election in 2019 would be far from certain. The current major opposition party, Primero Justicia, is more moderate than Maduro’s Partido Socialista Unido and appears to be a more likely candidate to participate in Pan-American diplomacy; its most well-known politician, Henrique Capriles, has already established relationships with multiple South American nations. But the United States cannot afford to lose all ties with Venezuela’s political class until the next elections. The mutual expulsion of diplomats was an understandable but unnecessary move on the side of the United States. As a first step, the U.S. should invite the top Venezuelan diplomats back to Washington, D.C. as a gesture of goodwill and willingness to make the first move. This requires some humility, but if done with sufficient announcement in the press and explanation of the reasoning behind it, the move would not be perceived as weakness by either Venezuela or the world at large. Rather, it would be an acknowledgement by the United States that, as a superpower, it must sometimes reassure smaller states of its good intentions by gestures like this.

In addition to this important diplomatic invitation, the State Department could also head missions to negotiate between the Venezuelan government, U.S. business interests in Venezuela, and the United States itself to reduce Venezuelan controls on U.S. companies and U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan oil in order to stabilize the Venezuelan economy and improve dialogue between the two nations. This path of action is laid out more carefully by some scholars, including Clay Moran in International Affairs Review.

Venezuela’s key ideological position in South America and in the world, together with its economic importance to the United States, makes it an important priority for U.S. foreign policy. In addition, the current turmoil—a result of political succession and economic fragility—make this an important time for the United States to take a slightly more active role in Venezuelan diplomacy. While national autonomy must be carefully preserved, U.S. interests would be well served both by exercising the humility to invite Venezuelan diplomats back to Washington, D.C. as well as by sending commissions to Caracas to negotiate policy changes to improve the Venezuelan economy.

 

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