June 5, 2008

The US election as though Venezuela mattered

Quico says:

Dear U.S. Voter,

Now that you have a clear choice between just two candidates in November, many of you will be asking, "yeah, ok, Iraq, yaddi-yadda, health care, blah-blah, CUT TO THE CHASE! Which one is better for Venezuela?!" Right?



Silliness aside, I do realize that, come November, the politics of the Chávez era are likely to rank pretty low on your list of criteria. But people vote for all kinds of idiosyncratic reasons, and if you're reading this there's just a chance that you're among a small, hardy breed that will actually think through the elections' effects on Venezuela before you cast your ballot. If so, hear me out.

The first thing to grasp is that, no, US policy towards Venezuela is not likely to be very different no matter who wins. The strategic realities underlying the Caracas - Washington relationship's weird brand of sotto voce co-dependence transcends the politics of the moment. The US under John McCain will buy just as much Venezuelan oil as the US under Barack Obama...or under any other imaginable president. And if there's one thing we know for a fact by now is that Venezuela would continue selling oil to the US even if some half-deranged marxist strongman with a huge id and a stunted superego took control of the country.

To put it differently, the name on the White House lease really has no bearing on the eagerness of US drivers to bankroll Hugo Chávez's revolution, or on Hugo Chávez's eagerness to keep taking all y'all's money.

Nor would either of the major US candidates be more likely than the other one to launch some kind of military adventure in Venezuela. Again, the reasons are strategic rather than ideological. Trudging through a chronic recruitment crisis that has forced it to offer up to $40,000 in sign-up bonuses just to keep force levels steady, the US military is barely able to maintain the military commitments it already has.

And even if, somehow, the Pentagon could manage to recruit more soldiers, it's clear that the US has geostrategically far bigger fish to fry than Chávez, with Iran, North Korea, Syria and even a failed-state like Somalia presenting far bigger danger to US national security than Chávez even when he's off his meds.

(This, by the way, is one key reason Chávez can actually bash the US safely: even as he rails against an imminent invasion he knows full well that the US isn't really in a position to launch one.)

So the, lets say, material underpinnings of the US-Venezuela relationship just don't hinge on what happens on November 8th. Oil and invective will continue to flow north while money and opprobium continue to flow south. As far as Venezuela goes, the differences between an Obama presidency and a McCain presidency will play themselves out on a different, more symbolic level. They could, nonetheless, be profound.

Before getting into all that, though, I feel there's something we need to clear up. You've read, I'm sure, at least some newspaper reports about Hugo Chávez's heavy-duty penchant for Bush-whacking. You have, depending on your own stance, either shaken your head in disgust or felt a little thrill of approval at it. Either way, you've probably, at least implicitly, drawn the conclusion that Hugo Chávez really hates George W. Bush and, by implication, that US foreign policy is frightfully important to the fate of the Chávez regime.

On this point, the Chávez and Bush governments actually agree. In fact, whatever their ideological stance, my feeling is that most people in the US are deeply wedded to the idea that what their country does really matters to the rest of the world. For the right, that influence is a force for good in the world, while, for the left, it's often a force for evil - but everyone agrees, it's a force.

This is another aspect of the oedipal mating ritual of scorn-filled co-dependence between Washington and Caracas: Washington needs to feel influential, and with its constant stream invective, Caracas flatters it, convincing them that yes, they really are as influential as they want to believe.

So it usually comes as a surprise to people - or at least as a kind of bad-boy provocation - when I tell them that, in an oddly counterintuitive way, Chávez's anti-americanism really has nothing to do with the US, or even with George Bush. Instead - and if you really grasp this next sentence, you'll understand more about chavismo than 99.9% of your compatriots - Chávez uses anti-US rhetoric as a mechanism of social control inside Venezuela.

How does that work? Simple: whenever something - anything - goes wrong in Venezuela, Chávez blames the US. This extends from serious issues where there are legitimate questions about the extent of US involvement - like the 2002 coup attempt against him - down to matters as mundane as a bus driver's strike.

Milk is in short supply in Caracas stores? The CIA did it! Dengue fever breaks out in the South of the Country? Blame the gringos! Civil liberty groups are concerned about the latest spying legislation? The State Department put them up to it!

The US serves as a kind of all-purpose foil for Chávez, a universal receptacle for every buck that's in need of passing. But that's not all, because when everything bad that happens to you is the fault of a foreigner, then anyone who opposes you must be a traitor.

For years now Chávez has been attacking any and every sort of internal opposition in Venezuela by labeling it as part of a CIA orchestrated plot against him. This allows him to delegitimize all dissent while casting doubt on the patriotism of anyone who dares to question his judgment.

So anti-US rhetoric solves a huge variety of domestic problems for Chávez. It marginalizes dissent, it provides cover for government SNAFUs, and it helps turn "chavista" and "patriotic Venezuelan" into rough synonyms.

Now, having cleared that up, we can get back to the US election. In order to work as an instrument of internal control, anti-US rhetoric has to have a credible target inside the US. Over the last eight years, George W. Bush has been perfect for these purposes: bellicose, aloof, given to flights of neo-imperialist rhetoric and, lest we forget, willing to launch crazy military adventures against authoritarian regimes that happen to control a lot of oil. Bush made it almost too easy for Chávez.

Now, from a Venezuelan perspective, the main difference between Barack Obama and John McCain isn't what they are likely to do, but rather how they're likely to play into Chávez's strategy of internal-control-through-US-bashing. With his military background, tough-guy image, testosterone fueled rhetoric and penchant for humming tunes about bombing Iran, it's easy to see how Chávez's rhetoric could transition smoothly from Bush-whackery to McCainicide. Wouldn't miss a beat.

But what if a black guy who opposed the Iraq War from the start and pledged to talk directly to him took office? Now things get interesting. An Obama presidency stands to completely scramble Chávez's key strategy for internal control.

An Obama victory leaves Chávez with only bad options. He could try to apply the anti-Bush stencil to an Obama White House, blaming him personally everytime something goes wrong in Venezuela. But caricaturing Obama as some kind of racist/imperialist war monger in the Bush mold just wouldn't pass the snigger test, even within Chávez's tightly controlled circle of collaborators and sycophants. It's hard to demonize the guy who's gone out of his way - and paid a political price - to pledge to negotiate with you.

Alternatively, he could tone down the rhetoric and abandon the demonize-Washington strategy, but then all of his government's internal failures would be laid bare for all to see and all of his internal opponents would suddenly become legitimate adversaries rather than traitors.

To my mind, there's no doubt that Chávez would prefer a McCain victory. Only a McCain victory would keep him within his US-bashing comfort zone. Only with McCain in the White House could he continue the strategy of domestic control that has paid off so handsomely for him in the past.

Lets be clear: Venezuelan democracy in 2008 is far, far up a creek without a paddle in sight. An Obama victory would not suddenly revive it. But it would give Venezuelan democrats some very welcome breathing space, the chance to come out from under the veil of suspicion that association with George W. Bush has put us under.

And that, I think, is worth something.

Note: I actually wrote this as a script for LinkTV's "Dear American Voter" project. I'm better at writing than at talking into a camera, but for what it's worth, here's the Vid: