FORBES: Venezuela Seeks Grassroots-Level Alliances
Venezuela Seeks Grassroots-Level Alliances
05.24.06, 6:00 AM ET
The U.S. decision earlier this month to impose an arms embargo on Caracas underlines State Department reluctance to use conventional diplomacy to resolve the impasse with the Venezuelan government. It represents an incentive for President Hugo Chavez to accelerate the pace at which his government builds new international alliances.
Over the past few weeks, the Chavez government has been focused on international affairs. The international community, regional neighbors--and the United States in particular--are still deliberating the ramifications of the decisions announced. These put Caracas on an ideological collision course with Washington, but the Chavez government is gambling that it can rebuff U.S. aims to isolate it.
ALBA expansion. On April 28, Bolivian President Evo Morales signed a People's Agreement with Venezuela and Cuba. This brings Bolivia into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a regional integration project conceived by Chavez as a counter measure to the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Bolivia's entry is significant on a number of counts:
--It is a victory for Chavez's "Bolivarian" ideology and a repudiation of economic policies identified with Washington.
--It is an important boost for Chavez, who is hoping that victories for leftist presidential candidates in Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru could lead to a further expansion of the organization.
--Bolivia's accession was followed by the Morales government's decision to re-nationalize gas production. Through the ALBA agreements, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA will have new opportunities for joint ventures and investment in Bolivia at a time when the position of other investors in the sector is being reduced. This in turn provides Chavez with an opportunity to advance his plans for regional energy integration.
--ALBA may provide Bolivia with an export market for coca leaves and coca-based products, something that would be strongly resisted by Washington.
ALBA implies that South and Central American countries are presented with a choice between the Venezuelan and U.S. strategies for development and integration. That these are mutually exclusive options has been underscored by Venezuela's decision to leave the Group of Three (Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia) and Andean Community (CAN).
CAN withdrawal. Venezuela has been a member of the CAN since 1973. The organization has experienced internal tensions and has not been as effective as the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), which consists of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, in structuring regional or global integration. Initially, the Chavez government pursued regional integration though advocating CAN incorporation into Mercosur, subsequently opting to pursue unilateral Mercosur entry. In late April, Chavez announced that Venezuela would withdraw from CAN following the decision by Peru and Colombia to sign bilateral free trade agreements with the United States, arguing that these are incompatible with CAN membership.
This is a bold step by the Chavez administration. Caracas's clear determination to reshape the path of regional integration was further reflected in Chavez's criticism of Mercosur, which in his view remains too focused on free trade and has failed to develop a social or political component.
Promotion of socialism. Although Chavez unveiled his vision of "Socialism for the 21st Century" in Venezuela in 2005, the administration has never articulated this model in detail. However, during the current round of foreign trips, Chavez strongly emphasized his commitment to socialism and was emphatic in rejecting capitalist models of development. In seeking to renew interest and support for socialist ideas, Chavez will continue to bypass national governments antithetical to his administration by developing links with groups and politicians that identify themselves as socialist at the regional and municipal level.
Chavez has become more emboldened in his criticism of Washington and his advocacy of socialism as the oil price has increased and his support network has expanded. There is a view within the Venezuelan government that the Bush administration is seriously weakened and that Venezuelan diplomacy will insulate Venezuela from U.S. efforts to isolate Chavez.
The U.S. response to Chavez's global diplomacy and persistent criticism was to impose an arms embargo on Venezuela on May 15--on the grounds that Caracas is not cooperating fully in counterterrorism efforts. The move was largely symbolic but will negatively affect U.S. weapons manufacturers and pose initial logistical problems for the Venezuelan military.
The move may prove a serious misjudgement by the U.S. State Department. There is no credible evidence to back up the claim against Venezuela. Moreover, the embargo will serve to:
--strengthen the position of hard-line, anti-U.S. sections within the Chavista organization;
--increase grassroots international solidarity with Venezuela;
--accelerate Venezuelan strategies for diversifying its oil exports and commercial ties away from the United States; and
--encourage Venezuela to forge closer relations with China, Russia and Iran.
As Venezuela continues to promote its vision of a multipolar world and undercut national governments by mobilizing local popular support, further diplomatic conflict can be expected between Chavez and other heads of state. Caracas is pursuing a novel, but high-risk, strategy. Its chances of success may have been enhanced by the arms embargo.
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