The long-running debate over how to deal with the irrational and impulsive strongman, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has reached feverish pitch this winter. The latest casualty in this war of words has become U.S. Ambassador Larry Palmer, the Obama administration's nomination as ambassador to Venezuela. Worse yet, Chávez ultimately got what he wanted out of this latest battle: his choice of who will not be our next Ambassador in Venezuela. On Monday, Venezuela formally told the U.S. to not bother sending Larry Palmer as the next ambassador since he would be asked to return the moment he landed in Caracas.
How did this all go down?
Like Cuba, any U.S. move regarding Venezuela involves egos, politics and fortunately, some policy. Naturally, when Palmer went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the summer, the career diplomat—characterized by some at the U.S. Department of State as "not a Washington man"—he already faced an uphill slog.
Our domestic debate over Venezuela generally falls into two camps: engagement and confrontation. There are, of course, shades of gray and nuances between the two sides—though such voices are so often overpowered by the more extreme views.
On one side, you have those espousing "strategic engagement," keeping in line with the Obama administration's stated foreign policy and national security objectives. In short and broadly speaking, these proponents might argue, with an irrational state, you shouldn't turn your back. Look where that got us with North Korea, Iran and Syria. Instead you want a seat at the table to start a dialogue based on mutual respect and to build on areas of mutual interest. You raise concerns discretely and express disapproval quietly or through third parties. As one person said, engagement should be “subversive," because you seek to assert positive influence by being present and through cooperation on areas such as business development, financial opportunities, or culture and sports. Indeed, Palmer was the right guy to carry out this mission.
But, the engagement policy, as it is practiced with Venezuela, seems more like "appeasement," say people clamoring for a tougher approach. After all, for years now, we have witnessed a democracy's death by a thousand cuts. This past week, Hugo Chávez got one of his Christmas wishes with the approval of new decree powers, thereby further eroding the country's once well-established institutional checks and balances. Chávez threatens more than human rights and democratic norms; the U.S. has legitimate national security concerns, such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and narcotrafficking. Yet, as Chávez runs roughshod over international norms, is the U.S. working to halt the downward spiral?
With the 11th anniversary this week of President Hugo Chávez’s ascension to power, I started reflecting on what I had learned from the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution. President Chávez’s behavior and profile, internationally and nationally, provide a powerful lesson on how to challenge and defy traditional wisdom—and with it international norms and precedent.
1) Break All Diplomatic Rules and Decorum and You’ll Get a Free Pass: President Chávez has called U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” on the floor of the UN; said on his regular, one-man variety show Aló Presidente that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice needed a real man and described how he would seduce her; called the Secretary General of the Organization of Americas States, José Miguel Insulza a “pendejo” (to put it nicely, a jerkwad), just to cite a few of the incidents of his intemperate name calling. And what has the international community done? Besides King Juan Carlos of Spain telling him to “shut up” at the Ibero-American Summit, nothing. This over-the-top behavior challenges the traditional civility of diplomacy. Arguably, these sorts of outbursts don’t deserve a polite response. But they have had the effect of intimidating would-be critics, cowing heads of state and multilateral organizations all the while President Chávez thumbs his nose at democratic and human rights norms. The international community has watched as standards for free and fair elections have declined; stood on the sidelines as the government systematically dismantles freedom of expression by closing down opposition media; and given a meek response when it has jailed opponents. And the recommendation by many observers? Don’t provoke Chávez, implying that even raising legitimate issues is forbidden because it may provoke a childish reaction. President Chávez’s behavior also has the benefit of reinforcing a convenient image of a buffoon (see #7 below).