By Angelo Rivero Santos
Article published by Los Angeles Times on July 16, 2008. If anyone wants to reprint it, please visit original web site.
Andrés Martinez says cozying up to U.S. adversaries satisfies Hugo Chavez’s more radical constituency. Angelo Rivero Santos says pragmatic foreign policy interests are at the heart of his president’s diplomacy.
July 16, 2008
Today’s question: Why does Hugo Chavez seem to enjoy meeting with controversial world leaders such as Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the late Saddam Hussein? Previously, Martinez and Rivero discussed why U.S.-Venezuela relations are perceived so poorly and recent economic and political trends in Latin America.
‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’
Point: Andrés Martinez
I suspect the reason Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez flirts with the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad is the same reason he enjoys insulting President Bush at the United Nations or serenading the moon on national TV, as I once saw him do. The man is a natural entertainer, with the personality and sensibility of a humorous, provocative talk-radio host. What he loves most about acting out on the global stage is what we Mexicans call el desmadre.
As a political matter, Chavez subscribes to the age-old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” doctrine, which is why he keeps such unpleasant company.
It makes some sense. Chavez gets the most attention in this country when he meets with the likes of Ahmadinejad, and his goal is to be taken seriously in Washington as a global player. Defying el imperio gives him street cred at home and abroad, especially throughout Latin America, where people admire leaders who stick it to the Americans. That’s one reason Mexico’s PRI governments always maintained good relations with Fidel Castro’s regime. Chavez is playing the same game but on a larger stage.
Chavez has a pretty crude worldview, and I doubt he worries about nuance. His flirtations with Ahmadinejad don’t necessarily mean he wants Israel wiped off the map; it’s more about the mischief. He genuinely believes today’s world order was created to benefit the Yankee empire, and so anything he can do to weaken it is a triumph for the world’s disenfranchised. He thinks in Cold War terms, but instead of a world divided into eastern and western blocs, his dialectic is a north-south one. And it’s in the interest of advancing that struggle that he allies himself with unsavory characters.
Chavez is surrounded by some people who are more radical than he is (and others more moderate), and it’s important to bear in mind that one reason he engages in so much mischief abroad is to placate his more radical constituency, people who might be frustrated that the Bolivarian Revolution hasn’t gone further at home. Chavez’s more radical supporters may grouse that he has yet to nationalize all private industry or shut down those pesky opposition newspapers, but they relish his embrace of America’s enemies, and that bolsters his credibility with the far left. It’s the same reason Brazil’s leftist leader, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is so respectful and friendly toward Chavez — it buys him goodwill with his more radical supporters at home who may otherwise be discontent.
Andrés Martinez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
Venezuela’s ambitious foreign policy
Counterpoint: Angelo Rivero Santos
I have read with great interest your answer to a very provocative question. You have succinctly summarized the opinion of most neoconservatives — and some liberals — who share the perception fed by the U.S. media’s portrayal of Chavez and Venezuela’s foreign policy. Such opinions lack substantive evidence and argumentative power, though they are perfect for the headlines. Fortunately, perception is not necessarily reality — and Dust-up readers deserve a sense of reality in this forum. Let me share with you and our readers some facts about Venezuela’s foreign policy that you omitted in your response but will help in answering today’s question.
Venezuela’s Constitution, approved by voters in 1999, states that foreign policy should be based on the concepts of self-determination, non-intervention and multi-polarity. Since the late 1960s, Venezuela has agreed with but also challenged Washington’s foreign policy in many areas. During Chavez’s presidency, we have rejected the concept of unipolarity and consistently argued that the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 is no longer useful.
In seeking to defend Venezuela’s interests, we have implemented a realist foreign policy by building alliances with a variety of nations to deal with the asymmetries of power and influence present since the end of the Cold War. Our efforts to promote energy integration in South America and the Caribbean, closer relations with India and China and establishing greater ties with nations in Africa, where we have opened more than 13 embassies in the past five years, are only three examples of the reach of our ambitious foreign policy. The Middle East is no exception.
Our strategic and long-standing relation with Iran and Iraq and most of the Middle East goes back to the early 1960s, when Venezuela, Iran, Iraq and Libya became founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. In fact, OPEC was conceived by the brilliant mind of a Venezuelan economist, Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso. The first foreign policy priority of Chavez when he came to power in 1999 was to strengthen OPEC. In 2000, he visited every single OPEC member state, including Iran and Iraq, to lobby for the OPEC Caracas Summit, which was held later that year. It is in this context that he made his first official visit to both countries. Our relationship with Iran today is absolutely pragmatic and no different from the relationship the United States has with countries with whom it may not share social and political values but are crucial to its national interest.
Chavez visited Syria in 2006 to seek support for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. That trip included Argentina, Benin, Angola, Mali, Qatar, Iran, China, Russia, Vietnam and Malaysia, among others. As a sovereign nation, Venezuela seeks dialogue with every country in the world that is respectful of our differences. We believe that respectful open diplomacy among equals promotes dialogue and understanding. It may be worth recalling that, seeking these same objectives, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also visited Syria in 2007 to look for ways to open dialogue with that country.
As you see, amigo Andrés, far from being “an entertainer” or loving el desmadre, Chavez and the country’s foreign policy aim to promote and defend Venezuela’s national interest in a changing world.
Angelo Rivero Santos is the deputy chief of mission of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.