February 23, 2006

The Caracas-Washington Rift in Geopolitical Perspective

I liked this Stratfor piece for its clear-eyed, myth-busting perspective. Friedman argues, quite convincingly if you ask me, that for all the day-to-day diplomatic heat, a cool-headed, realist calculus shows that Venezuela is not really a geopolitical problem for the US. Not at the moment, anyway (though watch that Hamas money!) I reproduce the second-half of the piece, putting my favorite bits in bold:
The United States and the 'Problem' of Venezuela
By George Friedman

Venezuela has become an ongoing problem for the Bush administration, but no one seems able to define quite what the issue is. President Hugo Chavez is carrying out the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela and feuding with the United States. He has close ties with Cuba and has influenced many Latin American countries. The issue that needs to be analyzed, however, is whether any of this matters -- and if it does, why it is significant.


In reality, Chavez's ability to challenge the United States is severely limited. The occasional threat to cut off oil exports to the United States is fairly meaningless, in spite of conversations with the Chinese and others about creating alternative markets. The United States is the nearest major market for Venezuela. The Venezuelans could absorb the transportation costs involved in selling to China or Europe, but the producers currently supplying those countries then could be expected to shift their own exports to fill the void in the United States. Under any circumstances, Venezuela could not survive very long without exporting oil. Symbolizing the entire reality is the fact that Chavez's government still controls Citgo and isn't selling it, and the U.S. government isn't trying to slam controls onto Citgo.

Washington ultimately doesn't care what Chavez does so long as he continues to ship oil to the United States. From the American point of view, Chavez -- like Castro -- is simply a nuisance, not a serious threat. Latin American countries in general are of interest to Washington, in a strategic sense, only when they are being used by a major outside power that threatens the United States or its interests. The entire Monroe Doctrine was built around that principle.

There was a fear at one point that Nazi U-boats would have access to Cuba. And when Castro took power in Cuba, it mattered, because it gave the Soviets a base of operations there. What happened in Nicaragua or Chile mattered to the United States because it might create opportunities the Soviets could exploit. Nazis in Argentina prior to 1945 mattered to the United States; Nazis in Argentina after 1945 did not. Cuba before 1991 mattered; after 1991, it did not. And apart from oil, Venezuela does not matter now to the United States.

From the American point of view, an intervention that would overthrow Chavez would achieve nothing, even if it could be carried out. Chavez is shipping oil; therefore, the United States has no major outstanding issues. A coup in Venezuela, even if not engineered by the United States, would still be blamed on the United States. It would increase anti-American sentiment in Latin America, which in itself would not be all that significant. But it also would increase hostility toward the United States in Europe, where the Allende coup is still recalled bitterly by the left. The United States has enough problems with the Europeans without Venezuela adding to them.

Taken in isolation, Venezuela can't really hurt the United States. If all of South America were swept by a Bolivarian revolution, it wouldn't hurt the United States. Absent a significant global power to challenge the United States, Latin America and its ideology are of interest to Latin Americans but not to Washington.

This explains the strange standoff between Venezuela and the United States, and Washington's basic indifference to events in Latin America. Venezuela is locked into its oil relationship with the United States. Latin America poses no threat on its own. The chief geopolitical challenge to the United States -- radical Islam -- intersects Latin America only marginally. Certainly, there are radical Islamists in Latin America; Hezbollah in particular has assets there. But for them to mount an attack against the United States from Latin America would be no more efficient than mounting it from Europe. The risk is a concern, not an obsession.

For the United States, its border with Mexico matters. For the Venezuelans, high oil prices that subsidize their social programs and buy regional allies matter. Both want Venezuelan oil to keep pumping. Aside from the one issue that they agree on, the United States can live and is living with Chavez, and Chavez not only lives well with the United States but needs it -- both as a source of cash, through Citgo, and as a whipping boy.

Sometimes, there really isn't a problem.

The piece usefully points out the basic weakness in the endless chavophile incantation of past gringo misdeeds in the region: the changed geopolitical landscape. It always makes me smile when PSFs invoke the American intervention against Arbenz, say, to bolster the plausibility of the CIA plotting to rile up Venezuelan bus drivers. Like their Beloved Leader, they don't seem to have noticed that the bipolar strategic competition that drove the logic behind those interventions is dead and buried.

But I suppose for chavistas, it wasn't geopolitics that drove US meddling in the region, but rather some innate evil in the US government - an essentialist position that shows up the zealotry in their stance. For Chavez and his supporters, the gringos don't need a strategic reason to destabilize Venezuela: they do so, Disney villain style, purely because they're bad, bad, BADDDDD.