Toribío San Pablo confronts the paramilitaries
Apr 262005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Brazil, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador this week; she will spend a few hours in Bogotá tomorrow. CIP and the Latin America Working Group have distributed a memo making recommendations for the Colombia leg of her trip. Here are three more observations about other regional issues Dr. Rice will be confronting.

1. Venezuela. Hugo Chávez is legitimate, elected, and CIP firmly opposes anything that even remotely resembles a U.S. effort at regime change. We also applaud his channeling of Venezuelan oil wealth to badly needed social-services. Chávez is a complicated figure, though. Though he is usually called “leftist,” some of his government’s policies run counter to the goals of some important progressive causes.

  • Those who value press freedom should be concerned about a recently passed law with vaguely worded language allowing the government to close down media outlets deemed to be inciting violence or threatening public order.
  • Those who value demilitarization should be concerned about the host of new internal non-defense roles the new constitution has given the Venezuelan military, as well as President Chávez’s plan to create a 2 million-strong army reserve.
  • Those who value respect for human rights should be concerned about limits on freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary, and about the role that “Bolivarian Circles” may be playing in intimidating dissent. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch have already registered concerns about these issues.
  • Those who value equal rights and opportunities for women should be offended by President Chávez’s crude and suggestive comments about Condoleezza Rice in January.
  • Those who want to limit global small-arms transfers should be worried about the Venezuelan government’s latest weapons-buying spree, including the purchase of 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia. 

Press reports indicate that Dr. Rice will be discussing Venezuela during all four stops on her trip. It is perfectly acceptable for her to express concerns about human rights and democratic institutionality, on the diplomatic level, in discussions with other regional leaders.

Due to the immense amount of baggage in the U.S.-Latin American relationship, though, U.S. officials will do more harm than good if they choose to scold Venezuela unilaterally, as Donald Rumsfeld did on a trip to Brazil last month.

As the U.S. line toward Venezuela hardens (and vice versa), it does not make sense to pursue the strategies that have failed so miserably in Cuba, and have arguably helped to prop up Castro for almost half a century: diplomatic isolation, unilateral public criticism, assistance to opposition groups (who are then singled out for ostracism or harassment), or – and let’s hope that this isn’t being considered – the acts of sabotage and violence that used to be called “dirty tricks.” Even a whiff of suspicion that the United States is “bullying” or seeking regime change works immensely to Chávez’s political advantage.

(This, of course, applies well beyond Venezuela. Shortly before Bolivia’s 2002 presidential elections, U.S. Ambassador to La Paz Manuel Rocha warned that if Bolivians voted for cocalero leader Evo Morales – at the time not considered a main contender – the United States would cut its aid. The resulting tide of outrage led Morales to finish a close second in the first round of voting. Morales reportedly referred to Rocha as his “campaign manager.”)

It is still more complicated in Venezuela, though, as Washington is still trying to recover from the damage to its credibility inflicted during a failed April 2002 coup attempt. On that occasion, the Bush Administration and its then-assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Otto Reich, did not endorse an OAS resolution invoking the Democratic Charter until after the coup had clearly failed.

Because they will so quickly be viewed as the antagonists in the region, administration officials should avoid fire-breathing rhetoric. Indeed, the overall U.S. approach to Venezuela will require intense adult supervision – it cannot be left up to the ideologues and true-believers who occupy too many key posts in the Bush administration.

As it is, these characters can do enough damage from the outside. Look no further than Otto Reich, whose rigidly ideological pronouncements clumsily play right into Chavista hands. Witness this passage (one among many) in a recent Reich piece in the National Review.

Not only is Castro still in power, but he is being kept afloat financially by Venezuela’s oil-fueled charity; the Sandinistas are making a comeback in Nicaragua; and violent radical groups menace democracy from Bolivia to Haiti. In recent years, left-of-center leaders have come to power in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. Should we worry about these leftists? In general, yes. We know that socialist prescriptions do not provide a solution for the problems of developing nations-and as the chief importer of goods and of people in this hemisphere, the U.S. will pay the price of their success or failure. We would much rather pay the price in imported goods and services from successful societies than bear the cost of surplus populations, crime, and drugs exported by failed states.

Yes, that’s right: the Bush Administration’s last assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, a close friend of brother Jeb, thinks that any elected left-of-center government in Latin America is a potential threat we should “worry about.”

In her discussions of Venezuela this week, Dr. Rice would do well to distance herself from the views of the Otto / “New Axis of Evil in Latin America” faction. Only then will it be possible to get other moderate leaders in the region to help convey some very real concerns about freedoms and institutions in Venezuela.

Unfortunately, there are signs that the Bush administration may be headed further down the wrong path. Today’s New York Times reports that “the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach [toward Hugo Chávez’s government], including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government.” That would be a disaster, virtually guaranteeing that the United States finds itself both going it alone and inadvertently strengthening the most hard-line elements in Chávez’s government.

2. Governance is expensive. According to today’s Miami Herald, Dr. Rice “is expected to send a clear message that reforms are needed to improve the lot of the region’s poor and make democracy work for the masses, according to U.S. officials. The top issues: development of civil society, more free trade, government transparency and the fight against corruption.”

This message – the need to undergo reforms and improve governance in order to make democracy work for the poorest – is excellent. It would be even better, though, if it came with some money to pay for it. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s 2006 aid request anticipates cuts in the sorts of U.S. programs that are designed to strengthen reform and good governance in Latin America. It foresees region-wide drops from 2004 levels in Child Survival and Health Programs (-16%), Development Assistance (-14%), and Economic Support Funds (-4%).

The deficit and Iraq are chiefly to blame, but there could not be a worse time for these aid programs to be moving in the wrong direction.

3. Don’t downplay Ecuador. While nobody was fond of Lucio Gutiérrez, especially after he fired Ecuador’s Supreme Court late last year, it is important that Dr. Rice make clear that the United States is uncomfortable with the way he was forced from power last week. It is hard to characterize his violence-inspired exit as a constitutional transfer of power. We second the recommendation made in today’s Miami Herald’s editorial: “At the least, changes of government inspired by violence should be condemned without mincing words.”

4 Responses to “Secretary Rice’s trip: three non-Colombia issues”

  1. O-Lu Says:

    Preocupante en efecto que la visita de la sra. Condoleeza se esté usando para azuzar a Colombia contra Venezuela. Merece un comentario la retorica guerrerista del gobierno Uribe.

  2. jcg Says:

    I don’t really see that happening in this particular instance, Mr. O-Lu. What I see is actually somewhat the opposite: Venezuela is using Ms. Rice’s visit in order to once again bring out the same tired and exaggerated anti-USA rhetoric, with a slap or two aimed at Colombia.

    Now, at the same time, it’s obvious that the Bush administration definitely mistrusts Venezuela, and in that sense Mr. Isacson’s criticism of current hardline US rhetoric towards Chavez is definitely warranted. But outside the realm of rhetoric (and its political and diplomatic implications), I don’t believe that it’s realistic to consider that “winds of war” may be blowing, one way or another.

  3. Diana Amores Says:

    “…the United States is uncomfortable with the way he was forced from power last week…”

    It’s important to say that it was the peaceful protests of men, women and children that finally ended with Guitierrez regime of corruption, repression and servitude to the United States.

    Ecuador is also uncomfortable with the way the United States is attempting to undermine the authority of an International Criminal Court to which we have referred the Guiterrez criminal abuses and MURDERS during the criminal repression ordered by him against unarmed men, women and children. (See case of the chilean photographer)

    Finally, I, as an ecuadorian, do not understand why it should matter to us whether or not the United States “feel uncomfortable” about the way we ecuadorians excercise our rights to overthrow tyrants and thieves from the Presidency. I’m sorry Mr. Bush, but I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that we ecuadorians do not give the slightest damn (forgive the expression) about what makes you uncomfortable or not.

    We certainly haven’t been asked to provide you with our opinion about how uncomfortable we are with you invading countries like Vietnam or Irak without invitation, need or approval from the international community.

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    First, Lucio Gutiérrez was a poor president, and likely corrupt. Second, Ecuadorians absolutely should voice the concerns about the United States that you mention.

    The point I wished to make was that it’s a shame that the Ecuadorian system was unable to get rid of a bad government through legal, constitutional channels – especially since it appeared that several of Gutiérrez’s moves were illegal or unconstitutional.

    Hugo Chávez said it well recently: “Independent of the fact that we had a rather large frustration with Lucio Gutiérrez, I did not agree with the way we saw it (Gutiérrez’s exit) happen.”

    This should matter to the United States and all of Ecuador’s neighbors, for three reasons.

    1. Taking to the streets and making a country ungovernable – however peacefully – is not an effective system for changing unpopular leaders. It risks a violent backlash, and the right can use it too (as in the failed but very damaging “paro” in Venezuela in 2003).
    2. If extra-legal transfers of power become common and accepted, this is a step backward for Ecuador’s democratic transition. It used to be that only the military carried out such transfers of power – they were called coups. Creating an atmosphere in which constitutional mechanisms for ejecting leaders don’t matter could risk a return to those bad old days.
    3. Ecuador is a signatory to the OAS Democratic Charter, and thus has committed to choosing a democratic and constitutional form of government. That is an international commitment to respect the constitution and the democratic rule of law. An infringement on Ecuador’s sovereignty and an invitation to meddling from neighbors? Of course – but so are all international agreements and treaties.

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