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U.S.-Venezuela Relations Since the 1990s: Coping with Midlevel Security Threats by Javier Corrales and Carlos A. Romero

Photo: Lars Klove

Diplomacy,” Winston Churchill once said, “is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” Judging by this definition, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is not a natural diplomat. His foreign policy is blunt and acerbic: if he dislikes you, he tells you plain and simple, frequently in public. Chávez’ “diplomacy” toward the U.S., his nemesis and—paradoxically—main trading partner, is a toxic mix of rhetoric with occasional pragmatism. This poses a complicated challenge for U.S. diplomats.

What are the forces driving the evolution of recent relations between the two countries? Can we analyze them using established theories of international relations (IR)? These questions are addressed in U.S.–Venezuela Relations Since the 1990s: Coping with Midlevel Security Threats, a new book by political scientists Javier Corrales and Carlos A. Romero.

Corrales and Romero, professors, respectively, at Amherst College and the Universidad Central de Venezuela, conclude that only a combination of IR theories can explain this relationship. Their comprehensive analysis of the facts and factors that drive it should interest students of Venezuela, as well as those specializing in international relations.

The book begins by correctly observing that U.S policy toward Venezuela after Chávez was inaugurated in 1999 and was open-minded—not friendly, but not yet fully hostile.

This changed in the first five years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Two events in 2001 precipitated a heightening of tensions: the increase in internal opposition to Chávez, and Venezuela’s condemnation of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Washington reacted sharply to the latter by withdrawing its ambassador and publicly criticizing Chávez in an effort to rally support in the hemisphere against him, buoyed by a perception that Chávez was internally weak.

The policy of direct confrontation was unproductive for the U.S., so a more moderate approach was instituted with the appointment of Thomas Shannon to the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs post. Shannon initiated a “talk softly, sanction softly” policy, which meant maintaining trade ties, ignoring the many outrageous declarations coming from Caracas, and targeting specific individuals and institutions inside the Chávez government with midlevel sanctions. “At the core of Shannon’s doctrine,” the authors point out, “was a fusion of commercial liberalism and prudent realism.”

This shift in policy sparks the authors’ academic curiosity. The U.S. is more important to Venezuela than vice versa, so one would expect the relationship to evolve toward a toughening stance from Washington and a more conciliatory approach from Caracas. Yet with the Shannon doctrine, the opposite has occurred. They wonder, can existing IR theories explain this counter-intuitive development?

To answer the question, the authors employ several strands of IR thinking. They first cite structural realism, which broadly posits that when two nations feel threatened by each other, conflict ensues. Under this theory, economic interdependence serves to constrain this tendency, effectively putting the brakes on harsh measures.

The authors believe structural realism on its own does not fully explain the incensed rhetoric. They argue that constructivism—which grounds international relations in ideological concerns—can assist in accounting for Venezuela’s sustained anti-American stance. They then posit a theory of “identity construction” to explain Chávez’ relations with “pariah” states such as Iran and Cuba as “a way of signaling the formation of an ideological divide between us and the others.” The Venezuelan leadership’s effort to court nations hostile to American interests is seen as an essential element in defining its national identity.

The authors masterfully analyze the domestic factors shaping each country’s decisions. Recognizing Venezuelans’ generally positive sentiment toward the U.S., they write that “[w]ithout the rise of semi authoritarianism […] it would have been harder for Chávez to introduce this type of foreign policy break from both historical tradition and majority sentiment.” Chávez, they believe, is implementing his U.S. policy in spite of domestic factors, not because of them.

On the U.S. side, the authors focus on the role of the U.S. Congress in determining foreign policy. In the beginning of the decade, Congress was tolerant toward Chávez. Yet, as Chávez’ assertiveness grew and his relations with nations such as Iran deepened, positions in Congress hardened while the administration—conversely—began implementing the more tolerant Shannon approach. This led to “a clear clash with the administration,” where polarization “has led to an increasingly assertive Congress that has grown frustrated with administrative policy and has begun to take steps to challenge the administration for influence in the U.S.–Venezuela relationship.” While they stop short of offering a prediction on future policy, they believe Congress may sway the administration into a less tolerant policy.

At times, the book reads like a “Greatest Hits” collection of Chávez’ global antics. The book could have benefitted from greater methodological rigor when testing its hypotheses. For example, while the “identity construction” theory can explain Venezuela’s alliances with rogue nations, alternative theories are not explored thoroughly enough. The reader is left wanting more answers as to why the Chávez regime needs to build this identity. The book would have also benefited from further exploration of the role that Chávez’ popularity played in giving him the freedom to pursue ideological interests.

But the book’s greatest value is that it dispels some of the myths of U.S.–Venezuela relations, such as the chavista claim that Washington is motivated by an effort to control Venezuelan oil. As the authors point out, Venezuela continues to be a major petroleum exporter to the U.S., and actively seeks U.S. capital and technology in its oil sector. Moreover, the allegation of U.S. involvement in the attempted 2002 coup against Chávez is effectively disproved.

What does the future hold for these friends/enemies? The authors wisely refrain from speculating, although they identify key factors that will influence the relationship. The trends include rising U.S. domestic oil production, changes in the composition of the U.S. Congress, and implications of Chávez’ departure from Venezuelan politics because of cancer. Iran’s nuclear program and its cooperation with Venezuela are also discussed, since a nuclear Iran is bound to generate a tougher stance against Venezuela. Given the uncertainties surrounding all of these factors, the bilateral relationship will remain on knife’s edge in the near future.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Venezuela-U.S. relations, Hugo Chavez, Identity