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It is time to allow reality to guide U.S. policy towards Venezuela and free Washington’s agenda toward the rest of the Americas.
For too long, the United States’ relationship with the Americas has been defined by its contentious dealings with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Nearly all public discourse in the United States regarding the Americas is filtered through this prism. The time has come to break that debilitating pattern and institute a policy of constructively ignoring Chávez.
Reality makes it possible to largely ignore Chávez. Mutual Venezuela-U.S. energy-sector dependence, for example, undermines Chávez’s ability to access to oil coercively. Notwithstanding Venezuela’s massive oil industry, Chávez’s sphere of effective influence in the Americas and beyond is as overblown as his rhetoric. Profound changes are afoot in the Americas, but Chávez is neither their animating nor sustaining cause. In short, a Chávez-led Venezuela does not pose a national security threat to the United States at present or in the foreseeable future.
Reality also demands that we turn our attention away from Chávez and onto the very real changes occurring throughout the Americas. At the most practical level, with the unfortunately limited time and attention given to the Americas in the U.S. policymaking process, such precious resources should not be squandered and misapplied. Today’s globalized, oil-crazed economy makes it virtually impossible to economically isolate Venezuela in order to force internal change. Rhetoric and empty symbolism merely emboldens Chávez and complicates efforts to reach out to allies and potential allies throughout the region on a common agenda of democracy with socio-economic advancement.
To begin the reorientation of U.S. policy toward the Americas away from the ideologically myopic initial five years of the Bush administration—best exemplified by the centrality of Chávez—the United States should respond to the continuation of the Chávez government with four interrelated approaches that have short-, medium-, and long-term applicability.
First, escalation of tensions with Chávez would be counterproductive and reckless. As the State Department has recently begun to do, the United States (including all elements of the Bush administration as well as Members of Congress) must avoid counterproductive wars of words and empty “get-tough” symbolism. Responding to Chávez’s rhetorical flourishes distracts from the underlying issues that should be the focus of all U.S. pronouncements regarding Venezuela—the need to respect democratic governance and to protect human rights. It also needlessly complicates engagement with others in the region.
Second, although Chávez enjoys a solid claim on electoral legitimacy, his exercise of power undermines his democratic legitimacy. The United States must remain committed to promoting democracy, including democratic governance. Those efforts, however, should not focus on regime change, but rather on strengthening those engaged in fostering democratic institutions and governance. Regime change may well be a long-term objective, but it is neither a policy nor a strategy unto itself. Democracy promotion in Venezuela, as elsewhere in the Americas, also cannot be “Made in the USA.” Instead, other hemispheric players who value the inter-American commitments to democracy and democratic governance must be actively engaged.
Third, the United States must reengage with the Americas and make its commitment to socio-economic advancement throughout the region undeniably clear. It must put resources behind often empty rhetoric and transcend the false “trade, not aid” dichotomy. Smart trade policies and social investment must go hand in hand.
Finally, during a longer time horizon, the United States must seize the transformative opportunity presented by new energy sources and technologies to reorient its economy to complement smart trade and social investment policies and provide the kind of short-term policy flexibility that is sorely lacking in the current U.S.-Venezuela dynamic. A reduction in oil consumption also would further dissipate any threat Chávez could present to the United States.
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