Venezuelans are expected to elect Nicholas Maduro, an ally and foreign minister of Hugo Chavez, in national elections this Sunday, preserving for now – “por ahora” – the Chavez legacy. Venezuela’s program of “21st century socialism” will continue, as will its project of integrating Latin America into a progressive power bloc, even an “OPEC of natural resources” in an increasingly multipolar world.
Most importantly, the Chavez legacy will continue to live on in the misiones, or social services projects, invested to alleviate hopeless poverty. One, Barrio Adentro, involves 67 local clinics offering medical treatment to 15 million people. Poverty under Chavez was reduced by half. Food subsidies supported half the population. Literacy has been increased significantly. Cooperatives have received credit and technical support. High-school dropouts have taken night courses and obtained subsidies to new universities. Community-based councils have empowered the poor in a kind of participatory democracy never before seen.
Assuming Maduro wins, Cuba also will continue to receive 95,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil every day, while Cuba deploys 20,000 medical personnel to work in community centers.
Yet a deep US hostility to Venezuela persists, not only from the State Department but from nearly all mainstream journalists and academics. Offended by Chavez’s strident anti-imperialism and his cult of personality, the critics typically see an incipient dictatorship and downplay the repeated electoral victories Chavez was able to amass for more than a decade. The critics are not wrong in all their charges, but seem stubbornly devoted to regime change rather than productive peaceful coexistence, leading to the spiral of tensions.
The US conflict with Chavez suggests that American foreign policy is influenced by sharply divided elites. The first has been represented by Barack Obama’s periodic gestures toward direct diplomacy with adversaries, as when he and Chavez shook hands in a famous photograph at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. According to eyewitnesses present, Obama said words to the effect of “I need time” in their brief hallway conversation – having significantly waived off his American handler. Maduro was present with Chavez in that spontaneous encounter, and both were very encouraged. But immediately thereafter, Jeffrey Davidow, the veteran State Department official in charge of the proceedings, threw cold water on the amicable opening by slamming Chavez for seeking a photo-op.
As Obama turned his attention to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, decisions returned to the old Cold Warriors at State and the Pentagon. The next disastrous incident came during the September 2009 Honduras coup against elected president Manuel Zelaya, which Obama at first called by its right name – a coup – then was forced into an embarrassing retraction, leaving Hondurans living under the new Lobo regime which most Hondurans considered illegitimate. A main purpose of the US-supported Honduras’ coup was to prevent “another Venezuela” in the region.
As recently as five months ago, secret talks were taking place between the State Department and Nicholas Maduro, aimed at putting the bilateral relationship on a better footing. Then in December in Miami, Obama gave a speech containing no reference to Chavez’s health crisis but criticizing Venezuelan “authoritarianism.” An angry Maduro called off the talks. Weeks later, former US Congressman William Delahunt (D-MA), often a contact with the Venezuelans, tried to explain the president’s speech as merely “reading talking points” prepared by his staff.
Finally, when heads of state from Latin America and around the world were gathering in Caracas for the Chavez funeral, Obama could only dispatch Delahunt and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), not vice-president Joseph Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry. Obama also released a statement expressing hope for a “constructive” relationship with Venezuela based on human rights, the rule of law, and democracy promotion, a clear criticism of the president who lay in state.
While the fallen body of Hugo Chavez was given love and respect by the region’s leaders, the US government remained conspicuously isolated. Notably present at the funeral were Cuba’s leaders, presumably blocked from receiving any official US regards during the occasion. On Cuba, American strategy seems to rest on the premise that “regime change” will occur only after the funerals of 82-year old Raul and 86-year old Fidel Castro.