Last week, President Barack Obama delivered a major foreign policy speech about the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East and North Africa. It was bold, insightful and comprehensive. He mentioned just about every country in those areas that has made headlines recently: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Just about every country except for one very big and important one: Saudi Arabia. It turned out to be the elephant in the room, and its conspicuous absence from the speech spoke louder than most any other point.
Similarly, in recent major speeches about Latin America, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Valenzuela have also neglected to mention the oil-rich elephant in this hemisphere: Venezuela.
Why should we be silent on Venezuela? Is it a country—like Saudi Arabia—that we so often treat with kid gloves?
Late last year, it was officially stated that we know that the Venezuelan state has connections to narcotraffickers and terrorists (among other items). This came thanks to the Senate’s “questions for the record” answered with refreshing candor by then-ambassador nominee to Venezuela Larry Palmer.
When the truth is already “out there,” why should we still be passive with this South American country?
Several tell me that the great debate on Venezuela inside our government is still hot between the strategic engagement (or “appeasement”) camp and the proactive camp. But, the numbers in the strategic engagement side seem to be dwindling. This is good news. Nevertheless, to date, the tensions between these two camps and consequential apparent indecision and confusion about our policy direction continues to cost us internally and in the region.
Should we give Venezuela the Saudi silent treatment, and ostensibly look the other way, as if Chávez is some Saudi prince? Can we see no evil, hear no evil with the likes of Chávez?
Unfortunately for Mr. Chávez, he is no King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz or Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz. We cannot have a rational—even if contradictory, hypocritical and problematic—relationship with Venezuela’s Chávez. After all, Chávez in part cultivates his notoriety through his bombastic tirades at his bully pulpit, such as by demonizing a sitting U.S. president. Royalty doesn’t deign to perform such theatrics.
Saudi Arabia is arguably a far greater powerbroker and leader in its region than is Venezuela in this hemisphere. Venezuela can hardly boast the same—or even a close distant—to the Kingdom’s regional influence and global reach.
Instead, Chávez’ Venezuela is moving in the direction of Zimbabwe, a country that has gone from bread basket to basket case.
In Caracas and Harare, just when you think things can’t get worse—they do. Food shortages. Power blackouts. Crime. Inflation. Political violence. Media intimidation. Human rights violations. Constitutional demolition. Weak opposition. Squandering the country’s natural riches. Cozying up to foreign governments that sponsor terrorism, like Iran and Syria. Venezuela takes a much more nefarious turn in that we know (even with the recent conciliatory gestures toward Colombian President Santos) that this state aids narcotrafficking terrorist groups, like the FARC in Colombia. The possibilities are endless for the trouble Chávez and his pals could create for the United States.
The leaders are also alike. Like the “Old Man” Robert Mugabe, Chávez evokes the same nostalgic loyalty and regional pride. The one-time revolutionaries turned caudillos. Both blame economic and political misfortune and mishap on the so-called imperial forces in their respective regions. Both use nationalist rhetoric and intimidation to stay in power, and both are relentless in their quest to maintain their power. A charismatic populist in good times and a threatening brute when the chips are down. Two bullies who are crazy like foxes.
Zimbabwe’s downfall has had consequences for the region. We should expect the same—and far worse—to happen with Venezuela. Even if the country does not implode, it will continue to create a mess in the region. The U.S. is not immune to this mess. For those who think that Chávez is his own worst enemy, look at Mugabe, who has ruthlessly held on to power for three decades and counting. By comparison, Chávez is just getting started with not even 15 years under his belt. For those who think that Venezuela will fall apart, look at Zimbabwe. And it just keeps getting worse.
And, yet, we remain silent.
Time to quit giving Chávez the same silent treatment we give to the Saudis.
He’s like a Mugabe on steroids, not a member of the House of Saud. The Venezuelan government furthermore lacks the business savvy of Saudi officials. Because we know of Chávez’ support of narcotraffickers and terrorists, we must break out of this reticent rut. We should seize the opportunity to be more proactive regarding his violations of hemispheric norms, and show some of the ethical leadership the region needs us to have. The royal silent treatment is not putting us in the right direction. We cannot afford for Chávez to have three decades in office and counting.
*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC.