Obama’s Second Term Provides an Opportunity to Reset Relations with Venezuela

David Smilde

With the voting in both the United States and Venezuela resulting in the reelection of their presidents, the time is ripe for rethinking relations between the countries. 

On October 7 Hugo Chávez won reelection by more than ten points in smooth-running Election Day with a turnout exceeding 80%. Of course the electoral campaign itself had serious shortcomings with electoral authorities either unwilling or unable to control the Chávez government’s abuse of public institutions—for example its partisan abuse of state media and cadenas (obligatory coverage of government communications on all broadcast outlets). However, the opposition had ample resources of its own. Independent studies showed that Capriles clearly got his message out, exceeding Chávez in media coverage and campaign events. The election result was recognized by the Venezuelan opposition and by the international community.

And on November 6, Barrack Obama was elected to a second term as president. A second term is a time in which U.S. presidents can be bolder in their foreign policy as they think about their legacy rather than reelection. Of course the demands on a recently re-elected president are many, as multiple issue-specific publics demand attention. But there is a good case to be made that reconstructing Latin America policy merits priority. 

Latin America as a region is the United States’ second largest trading partner and with Europe in crisis, is more important than ever for U.S. economic recovery. Regional dynamics have changed, with the emergence of Brazil as a major economic player; opposition to U.S.-oriented free trade strategies; the emergence of “post neoliberal” governments; and the creation of alternative multilateral institutions such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Council of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). The United States neither can nor should seek to return to a 20th Century relationship with the region. If the U.S. government wishes to pursue legitimate national interests, it needs to repair relations with the region, and a more functional relationship with Venezuela would be a cornerstone of such an effort. In the region the antagonistic relationship with Venezuela is perceived as symbolic of an overly ideological U.S. posture. Venezuela is also a big exporter of oil and big importer of U.S. goods.

Of course part of a president’s legacy is leaving a favorable terrain for his party’s next presidential candidate. Thus it might be thought that taking a tough line on Castro and Chávez is important for Democrats’ chances in 2016. However, polling evidence from November 6 belie this argument. As has been widely commented, Obama’s reelection depended in no small part to the 71% vote he received from the U.S. Hispanic population. Less commented is the fact that this carried over into Florida where Obama won 60% of the Hispanic vote. This improved performance has a lot to do with the change in Florida’s Hispanic population which is now only one-third Cuban-American (who in any case voted 49% to 47% for Obama over Romney) and ever more Puerto Rican (who voted 83% for Obama). And despite Romney’s last minute “Chávez-baiting” ad campaign a whopping 74% of Venezuelan-American’s voted for Obama. 

Thus the Obama administration has good reason to seek improved relations and little preventing it from doing so.  It does not need to go far to look for inputs on how to improve relations with Venezuela. General Fraser of the U.S. Southern Command has repeatedly said that Chávez does not represent a national security threat and that its relations with Iran are economic and political, not military. Former Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy wrote, in an analysis before the Venezuelan elections that “If Chávez is reelected in a process judged acceptably free and fair, the United States should seek to reset the bilateral relationship with an eye toward the eventual renewal of high-level communication on areas of mutual interest.” Indeed, the Obama administration can simply look at the example provided by its closest ally in South America. Once he was elected, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shifted significantly from the strategy he pursued as former-President Alvaro Uribe’s defense minister. He has strengthened ties with Venezuela, developing significant collaboration on drug control and border policy, all while maintaining a quite different political ideology from Chávez.

Nobody expects a love-fest between the Obama and Chávez administrations. But taking steps to reestablish full diplomatic relations would be a good start. And there are a number of issues of mutual interest that present themselves. Perhaps most importantly, both Venezuela and the United States have a clear interest in the success of Colombia’s peace process. This in turn could facilitate collaboration on drug policy. 

It is also a good time to avoid needless antagonisms. Fortunately, the Obama Administration seems to have learned that engaging in tit-for-tat is counter-productive. The Chávez government thrives on a “third-worldist,” anti-imperialist narrative that portrays Venezuela as heroically standing up to U.S. interference. Thus, any attempt to pressure Venezuela with “tough talk” only reinforces this narrative, and not only distances it from the US, but gives the Chávez government the opportunity to deflect the demands of Venezuelan citizens.

More broadly, the Chávez government’s socialist discourse is based on the idea that liberal, representative democracy is “restricted,” “partial,” “bourgeois,” and just plain hypocritical because it focuses only political and civil liberties to the detriment of social, economic and cultural equality. Thus when the United States criticizes (the very real) threats to political and civil liberties within Venezuela, these criticisms are easily deflected as hypocritical. Much more effective would be to recognize (the equally very real advances) made in terms of social and economic equality while arguing that these gains are not sustainable without a robust regime of political and civil freedoms. Put differently, acknowledging progress in social and economic equality does not mean retreating from criticism of democratic shortcomings; it provides a platform for it. Statements that contradict instead of reinforcing the false dichotomy between political and civil liberties on the one hand, and social and economic equality on the other, are much more difficult for the Chávez government to dismiss. 

It is time to treat Venezuela as a neighbor who has made different choices than the United States has, but which merits respect as a democratic, sovereign nation, and with whom issues of mutual interest can be addressed in a mature and civilized fashion.