In the past week three critiques of the Chávez government in Venezuela have landed in my e-mail inbox. That is not unusual on its own, of course. In this case, though, all three critiques come from what is usually considered the "left." All of them warn of real – not imagined or hypothetical – concerns, and put the focus on specific and workable recommendations.
- From the arms control community: the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Blog asks, "Who’s Watching the Guns?"
- From the human rights community: the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action on Human Rights (PROVEA) is one of Venezuela’s oldest and best-known human-rights groups, and it was always unsparingly critical of the governments that came before Chávez. It has just released its latest annual human-rights report, covering October 2005 through September 2006. The tone is very balanced, but still quite critical.
- From a prominent U.S. liberal think-tank: the Center for American Progress, headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, has released a new report, "U.S.-Venezuela Policy: A Reality-Based Approach."
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.
"It is time for the international community to speak up. Pressure from foreign governments, and particularly Venezuela’s main trading partners, could help persuade Chavez to moderate his small arms build-up and to beef up controls on military stockpiles. To that end, these governments should take the follow steps: First, they should make it crystal clear to Chavez that he should not arm civilians. The threat posed by the distribution of military firearms to the civilian population is far greater – to Venezuelans and their neighbors – than the phantom US invasion force they ostensibly would be used to thwart. Second, these governments should ask the Venezuelan government to brief them on its plans for preventing the theft, loss or diversion of the rifles and ammunition. The plan should be thorough and detailed, and should include physical security and stockpile accounting practices that meet international standards. Finally, the Organization of American States and Venezuela’s neighbors should monitor the regional trade in illicit small arms and alert the international community if Venezuela’s rifles start appearing on the black market."
From the group’s press release: While there have been advances, mainly in the field of social rights, PROVEA expressed its concern for the enormous institutional weaknesses for preventing human-rights violations, investigating or punishing those responsible, or for creating favorable, long-term conditions for the enjoyment or exercise of rights. It highlighted the lack of political will, inefficiency and improvisation on the part of state agencies and bodies in the design and execution of consistent, coherent and integral policies to achieve an improvement in the country’s human-rights situtation.
These critiques are very welcome. They are far more interesting than what is coming from the right ("he’s a thug, we must contain the spread of this cancer") and from the "Chávez, right or wrong" crowd. They actually offer suggestions for how Venezuela’s elected leaders can govern better, and recommendations for a more constructive U.S. approach.
Despite the extreme current polarization – which continues to make work on Venezuela resemble poking a hornet’s nest – lets hope that both Caracas and Washington take these suggestions in that spirit.