Restarting Relations with Venezuela; Energy Realities Require a New Approach

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 26, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Restarting Relations with Venezuela; Energy Realities Require a New Approach


Byline: Michael Shank, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Traveling recently in a congressional staff delegation to Venezuela, I found my experience was not too dissimilar from my previous experiences in Syria and Iran.

This is not to say that I am aggregating these three states into some kind of axis-of-evil or rogue state conglomerate, because I am not. Assuredly, there are similarities between their governments' pushback against American policy; this is consistent throughout all three nations. The messages among many Venezuelans, Syrians and Iranians regarding American imperialism, perceived or real, is also commonplace.

What I am specifically referring to when I emphasize experienced commonality in Venezuela, Syria and Iran is that within each country there are three very disconnected realities, with equally disconnected communication: the U.S. perspective, the country's ruling government and the country's population. This is hardly profound analysis, but the gap among all three continues to confound good relations, given that it would serve the interests of all three to close this gap.

Before delving further into this, here's a quick overview of our meetings in Caracas. The full spectrum of perspective was at our fingertips - from the U.S., Ecuadorean and El Salvadoran ambassadorial vantage point, to the Venezuelan parliamentary political perspective, international and opposition media, nongovernmental organizations, local think tanks and business executives, and President Hugo Chavez-funded farmers' cooperatives, universities, community councils and health clinics.

We got an earful from each. Pervasive throughout Venezuela, Syria and Iran is an eagerness to educate the American. And in all three countries - as is typical throughout the world - opinions are shaped by a historical perspective of 500 years or more. Politics are not predicated upon the last year's reforms or changes, but rather forged on the back of several centuries and all that happened, including, in the case of Venezuela, U.S. involvement in Latin America, from coups to structural-adjustment programs, military maneuvers and exhaustive natural-resource extraction.

With many American perspectives, however, politics is dependent upon what is happening this year, or this month, and there is an assumption or at least hope that country X appreciates the immediacy of that political nuance; for example, President Obama's initial about-face on Latin America, reversing the previous administration's approach. The dissonance and contradiction between these two diverging worldviews is palpable in any conversation, whether in Caracas, Damascus or Tehran.

In Venezuela, what was most apparent in obfuscating improved U.S.-Venezuela relations was the polarized perspective between respective governments. The U.S. presence in Caracas borders on the patronizing, at least in private conversations. Even the term boys and girls was uttered in reference to local leaders. There is contempt for all things Chavez, and it is evident. President Chavez is equally polemical as he leads the country's latest revolution in a romantic throwback to the long lineage of preceding revolutionaries. Mr. Chavez dabbles with an odd mix of offensive and pedestrian name-calling toward the U.S., while citing classic revolutionary literature that eludes some of his less literate base.

What stands quietly amidst this cacophony, however, is the key to reform. It is the Venezuelan reformer - and in the case of Caracas, it was university professors, private-sector CEOs and think tank consultants - who sees the complexity of the conflict.

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