Defining Venezuela's "Bolivarian Revolution"

Article excerpt

FINDING A MOMENT in the history of U.S.-Venezuelan relations when tensions between the two countries have been worse than at the present time is difficult. Some in the U.S. Government perceive President Hugo Chavez Frias as uncooperative regarding U.S. regional policies on counternarcotics, free trade, and support for democracy. Venezuela's alliance with Fidel Castro's Cuba, its opposition to Plan Colombia, and its perceived sympathy for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other radical organizations are further irritants to the relationship. On the other side. Venezuelan leaders in the Chavez administration believe the United States is fundamentally opposed to the success of the Bolivarian revolution and that U.S. hegemony in the current world order must be checked.

Although officials in both countries occasionally express hope that relations will improve, this is unlikely to happen given the perceptions each country's foreign policymakers hold of each other. (1)

Since he was elected president in 1998, Chavez has transformed Venezuelan Government and society in what he has termed a Bolivarian revolution. Based on Chavez's interpretation of the thinking of Venezuelan founding fathers Simon Bolivar and Simon Rodriguez, this revolution brings together a set of ideas that justifies a populist and sometimes authoritarian approach to government, the integration of the military into domestic politics, and a focus on using the state's resources to serve the poor--the president's main constituency.

The Bolivarian revolution has produced a new constitution, a new legislature, a new supreme court and electoral authorities, and purges of Venezuela's armed forces and state-owned oil industries. These policies consolidated Chavez's domestic authority but generated a great deal of opposition in Venezuela, including a failed coup attempt in 2002. Even so, after his victory in a presidential recall referendum during the summer of 2004, Chavez seems likely to consolidate his grip on power and even win reelection in 2006.

Although the Bolivarian revolution is mostly oriented toward domestic politics, it also has an important foreign policy component. Bolivarian foreign policy seeks to defend the revolution in Venezuela; promote a sovereign, autonomous leadership role for Venezuela in Latin America; oppose globalization and neoliberal economic policies; and work toward the emergence of a multipolar world in which U.S. hegemony is checked. (2) The revolution also opposes the war in Iraq and is skeptical of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). The United States has worked fruitfully in the past with Venezuela when the country pursued an independent foreign policy, but the last three policies run directly contrary to U.S. foreign policy preferences and inevitably have generated friction between the two countries. (3)

Still, the geopolitics of oil make it difficult for the United States and Venezuela to escape their traditional economic and political partnership. The United States is Venezuela's most important consumer of its main export--oil. As a market, the United States possesses key advantages for Venezuela, such as geographic proximity, low transportation costs, and an ever increasing demand for energy. Access to large Venezuelan oil deposits across short, secure sea lines of communication is undoubtedly a strategic asset for the United States. Also, the United States and Venezuela have often found common political ground after Venezuela democratized in 1958, particularly as the rest of Latin America moved away from authoritarianism during the 1980s and 1990s.

Nevertheless, friction between the United States and Venezuela on trade policies, human rights, and regional politics is not new. What is different today about Venezuela's Bolivarian foreign policy is that it seems to be increasingly at odds with the United States precisely in the areas that once brought the two countries together--oil and democracy. …