The National Catholic Review
The Editors
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In a supremely ironic exercise of their franchise, Venezuelan voters moved one step closer to dictatorship on Feb. 15 by removing term limits for President Hugo Chávez. The result permits Chávez to run for re-election indefinitely and possibly remain in power, as he has suggested, until 2049, when he will be 95 years old. The election was only marginally free, accompanied as it was by the usual trappings of authoritarian rule: violent crackdowns on student protests; a strictly enforced, nearly complete media monopoly for the government; even a seven-hour presidential speech in the oratorical tradition of Fidel Castro. “Chávez’s intention is clear: He aspires to be president for life,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “But his capacity to pull this off is far from assured.”

That is an understatement. The plummeting price of oil, which generates an astounding 80 percent of the country’s total export revenue and helped fuel double-digit economic growth earlier in the decade, seriously threatens Chávez’s socialist revolution. Price controls designed to contain hyperinflation have led to food shortages. There is talk that the nation’s banking system faces imminent collapse and that Mr. Chávez may have to devalue the currency. Also, a closer look at the Feb. 15th election results shows that all is not well in this nascent and unlikely workers’ paradise. Even though he had every advantage, the margin of victory (54 percent to 45 percent) for Mr. Chávez’s referendum was only about one million votes, revealing that almost half the voters are displeased with Chávez’s reign.

The Obama administration’s response has been muddled. The State Department at first declared that Venezuela’s election “was held consistent with democratic principles”; then, following an onslaught of criticism, the department backtracked, saying, “The state of health of democracy in Venezuela is not very good” and that there is currently “no change in policy” from that of the Bush administration. It would be a major mistake indeed if there is to be “no change” in U.S. policy. For at least 50 years, U.S. policy toward Latin America in general, and toward Venezuela in particular, has been clumsy, paternalistic and myopic. What is required now is a new policy that is balanced and realistic.

The first component of such a policy should be the clear renunciation of gunboat diplomacy. President Obama should order the Central Intelligence Agency to shred any plans it may have for anything akin to the attempted coup it indirectly assisted in 2002. Such tactics are usually immoral and almost always impractical, producing little more than popular resentment. The second component of a new policy should be a multi-dimensional analysis of the political and economic situation in the region. While it is undoubtedly true that Mr. Chávez has undermined democracy in his country, it is also true that his policies have cut Venezuela’s poverty rate in half, helping to release the country’s working poor from the grip of an oligarchy that was indifferent to their plight. Mr. Obama’s only public comment about Venezuela thus far was made during an interview with Univision, in which he said that Chávez had “been a force that has interrupted progress in the region.” Perhaps, but Mr. Obama should try telling that to a Venezuelan mother who now has a roof over her head and schoolbooks for her children. Any new policy should recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Venezuelan people for economic justice as well as the legitimate successes of the Chávez regime.

The United States should also not repeat with Venezuela the mistakes it has made with other Latin American countries, particularly Cuba. Every strongman needs a bogeyman, a scapegoat, and for over 40 years successive U.S. administrations have played this role for Fidel Castro, giving his regime a much-needed raison d’etre in the process. Mr. Chávez aspires to be Fidel Castro’s successor in Latin America, a job that requires a certain degree of hyperbolic anti-Americanism. The United States should not take the bait. Mr. Chávez’s rhetoric will become less persuasive if the U.S. approach becomes more conciliatory.

The final component of a new U.S. policy simply involves Mr. Obama’s keeping his campaign pledge to engage in vigorous and open diplomacy with Mr. Chávez. On a host of policy issues—trade, immigration, economic development, drug policy, even a resolution to the conflict in Colombia—there is common ground and at least the possibility of progress. The administration should pursue initiatives in each of these areas, while leading the way to democracy through its example. In the end, respectful, intelligent dialogue, free trade and the arc of history will do more to counter Mr. Chávez’s anti-democratic antics than anything else.

Comments

Enrique I. Alonso | 3/7/2009 - 12:36pm
This opinion by America´s editors seems to reinforce the US government's tradition of supporting dictatorships in Latin America, although this time from the left. It alludes to the mistakes made with Cuba arguing for a 'conciliatory' approach seemingly in both cases, as if they were the same. If Cuba is to serve as a guide to the Obama Administration, then historical fact needs to be carefully considered. Cuba was a sovereign democratic republic between 1940 and 1952. That fact needs to be understood and the US media obstinately ignores it perhaps because of the US role in helping destroy said democracy. On March 10, 1952, 3 months before elections and behind in the polls, Batista implemented a military overthrow of Cuba's democratic government. What Cuba policy should Amerioa's editors have recommended to the US government at that point? A 'conciliatory' approach? Well, that was precisely the approach taken by Harry Truman who in 15 days recognized Batista as Cuba's legitimate president notwithstanding his coup. Eisenhower continued with the conciliatory approach. Batista of course persecuted and tortured opponents while enjoying full US economic, political and military support. That US policy undoubtedly helped set the stage that has brought the Cuban people to where they find themselves today. Allow me to add a little more history for those not very familiar with Cuba under Castro or who uncritically believe in him given the calculated embellishment of his crimes by supporters. Leading one of the principal movements to evict Batista, Castro assumed power promising democratic elections and liberty but then proceeded to step all over Cuba's constitution. Indeed, in 3 days he even 'appointed' a president and months later forced him to resign. He then proceeded to build the foundations of a totalitarian state and personality cult (1959-1976) with informers on every block and the systematic vilification of opponents as 'counter-revolutionaries', 'gusanos', paid 'US mercenaries', etc. Thusly he justified consistently threatening, imprisoning and executing Cubans who oppose him, for 50 years and to this day. Over 2 million and 4 to 5 generations of Cubans have sought exile since 1959, 33% of the population of the time while tens of thousands more are estimated to have persished attempting to escape by sea. Nevetheless, if I have read America's opinion correctly, its editors seem to imply that Obama should approach Castro just like Batista. What approach should the US have taken with Batista and what should that tell Obama about how to shape Cuba (or Venezuela) policy? What is ethically correct and what is actionable? In the case of Cuba I see 2 actionable paths: yet another US alliance with a Cuban dictator or an alliance with the people he oppresses. It should be obvious that of these 2 choices, only one is ethical. Venezuela however is not the same as Cuba for the simple reason that Chavez was democratically elected and also won the referendum on extending presidential term limits indefinitely. He has an alliance with a slight mayority of the people which is something that can most definitely not be claimed by either Castro. What is evident however is that the poor believe that Chavez represents their interests and that like rich politicians in Latin America he buys votes through handouts just before elections; but like Castro he justifies his repressive policies as a necessary defense against Venezuelan collaborators with US imperialism. (America also cites how Chavez' policies have cut the poverty rate in half but no studies are cited.) Venezuelans and the US government should fully expect that once Chavez consolidates his power, and he is very close, it will be impossible for the people of Venezuela to take back the blank check they have given him. What can and should the US do? I believe that if it takes a nuanced concilatory approach towards Chavez, and the opposite with Castro, it will se
David Pasinski | 3/7/2009 - 12:16am
I served as a priest in Venezuela from 1984-88 and have kept in contact with friends there to some degree ever since. They seeem wary, but split on Chavez-- like the popular vote. Some see his egotism and demagogery, but others remember well the corrupt political parties and are too ready for a benevolent (!?) dictator, I fear. I think Chavez has little to commend him and the exonomic downturn may well show his true colors, but I agree that US policy must be very clearly not able to be propagandized by him
John C. Bennett,M.D. | 3/6/2009 - 8:18pm
I hope this information will be given to our Secretary of State,the honorable Hilary Clinton.
david hennessy | 3/6/2009 - 8:15pm
Chavez, Obama and America..... who better to discuss failures of American policy. It is sick and getting sicker.
Rev. Alejandro López-Cardinale | 3/6/2009 - 7:08pm
As Venezuelan missionary Catholic priest working in the States and a frequent visitor in my country due to my ministry work, I deeply agree with this Editorial. I would like all readers focus on their attention not about if Chavez is or is not a democrat or a dictator –that issue corresponds to be analyzed by the Venezuelan and our political system-, but much more about what US policy toward Venezuela and Latin America needs to be done in order to avoid errors from the past. As the Editorial says: “What is required now is a new policy that is balanced and realistic.” World has changed and still changing. USA needs right answers for this particular “momentum”, as Chavez needs to ponder his power as well, power that remains so attached to the richness of the oil and starts to be away from the purpose of the “misiones” and the poor.
LEONARD VILLA | 3/6/2009 - 6:21pm
You state:"Mr. Chávez aspires to be Fidel Castro’s successor in Latin America, a job that requires a certain degree of hyperbolic anti-Americanism. The United States should not take the bait. Mr. Chávez’s rhetoric will become less persuasive if the U.S. approach becomes more conciliatory." That is not true. History has shown that dictators like Chavez will view any "conciliatory attitude" on the part of the US as weakness. They live in the world of macho. Hence there is a certain wisdom in the maxim: si vis pacem, para bellum. If you desire peace, prepare for war.
REGINALD MCQUAID | 3/6/2009 - 2:39pm
I eagerly read this article, expecting an enlightened Catholic position on Venezuela from the brothers of the murdered Jesuits of El Salvador. I was disappointed in your narrow definition of democracy. You appear to give more weight to the right of the rich to their already substantial private property, than to the right of the poor to food, health care and education. I think that Mr. Chavez has brought more "good news to the poor" to the people of Venezuela than have the oligarchs over the past century. You do him a disservice by dismissing him as a "dictator".

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