Chavez Flails at Home and Abroad
As the troubles and pressures mount, the Venezuelan leader is more unpredictable and contradictory than ever.
August 12, 2009 - 12:00 am
Venezuela has insufficient funds to import increasingly scarce food and other necessities which it no longer produces in sufficient quantity, but Chávez’s acquisition of armaments to withstand the claimed U.S. threat from Colombia seems unaffected.
More recently, Chávez froze relations with Colombia, a move that was not well received by some. Chávez also claimed that he would halt the importation of ten thousand cars from Colombia. On August 7, an increasingly mercurial Chávez reversed course and sent his ambassador back to Colombia. During a televised conference, he said, “Go back to Bogota, Gustavo. Go to work, and you have a lot of it.” Chávez also denied any intention to sever relations with Colombia. It has been suggested that Chávez was gently reminded that Venezuela’s fading oil wells need lots of natural gas from Colombia to maintain the pressure necessary for oil recovery.
Most Latin American countries, other than Argentina — the birth place of many fine wines, Che Guevara, and Juan Peron — have not been much bothered by the United States-Colombia accord. However, Chávez’s symbiotic relationship with FARC, which continues although denied by Chávez, seems to concern even some of his allies. These concerns are being exacerbated by Colombian President Uribe, who has been touring other Latin American countries and giving leaders his dossier on Chávez. It has been speculated, probably correctly, that Chávez’s turnabout on Colombia was a result of President Uribe’s favorable reception in other Latin American countries. Brazil was the cornerstone of President Uribe’s efforts, since the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, is principally Brazil’s baby and although Venezuela is a member of UNASUR, Brazil has not yet accepted Venezuela into the Southern Cone Economic Zone (MERCOSUR).
Brazil is becoming an increasingly powerful country and is a natural rival for Venezuela as well as for Colombia. The United States is now investing $10 billion to help Brazil exploit massive hydrocarbon reserves off Brazil’s coast, which are expected eventually to transform Brazil into one of the world’s ten largest oil producers. This cannot be good news for Chávez, whose own oil production continues to decline.
Chávez cannot control the international price of crude oil (although he would like to); as it has declined much of the funding for his social programs has become unavailable. A cutoff of natural gas from Colombia would obviously accelerate the decline. Substantially reduced oil production during Chávez’s reign also has hurt. Chávez needs oil money to continue to provide bread and circuses at home; when he is reduced to providing only circuses but no bread, his power suffers. Oil funds are also needed to advance the spread of “Bolivarian socialism” elsewhere. However, inflation reached an all time high in July, and the unavailability of hard currency and dramatic declines in Venezuelan production of oil, food, and other necessities are attributable directly to his policies, which don’t work. One can hope that some of his acolytes may have noticed this.
Nor have things been going well for Chávez in Honduras, to which former President Zelaya has been unable for more than forty days to return, other than by stepping briefly over the border with Nicaragua. Here is a very good translation of an article in an Honduran newspaper, la Tribuna, explaining for those who don’t already know why what happened in Honduras was not a “military coup.”
Apparent failure in Honduras and at least modest support for the new Honduran government from Panamá, Japan, Taiwan, Peru, Germany, Colombia, and Israel cannot be pleasing to Chávez. Even the United States may be getting on board. A Department of State letter released on August 4 was remarkable in that it omitted any repetition of the demand that Zelaya be reinstated and for the first time put most of the blame for Zelaya’s current situation on Zelaya. It now appears that the United States will no longer threaten sanctions and that “whatever changes that come will be by Honduran consent alone.” Even President Obama has backed off a bit. On August 7, he said that although he continues to support the reinstatement of Zelaya, the United States cannot take unilateral action. “I can’t press a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya.” Perhaps the reference to “Mr.” Zelaya, rather than to “President” Zelaya was due to a teleprompter malfunction; perhaps it was intentional. Meanwhile, the Honduran government has decided not to receive OAS representatives who want to come to negotiate the return of Mr. Zelaya:
The group’s mission was to try to persuade Micheletti to negotiate with international mediators seeking to return President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup on June 28. But in addition to insisting that he accompany the delegation, Insulza failed to include foreign ministers who might be open to “reconsidering our position,” the statement said, which “has made it impossible to hold the visit” now.
From the beginning, Insulza and the OAS as a whole have harshly condemned the coup and said that any solution to the crisis must include Zelaya’s restoration to office.
Honduras continues to prepare for its regularly scheduled November 29 elections, to which a dozen countries have agreed to send observers. Panamá is helping Honduras to plan a credible and rapid method to transmit the results.
It is impossible to hide the increasing severity of problems from those directly experiencing them. The culture of impotence, long prevalent in many Latin American countries, extends only so far and, as the people have to do without even the bare necessities of life, the limits of their acceptance of the status quo must eventually be reached. That seems to be happening. As it occurs domestically, Chávez’s allies are becoming more attentive to his international blunders as well.