Venezuela's foreign policy loses its gas
By in Caracas
Published: December 18 2008 02:00 | Last updated: December 18 2008 02:00
Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's president, has delighted in strutting the world
stage during a decade in power, berating the US as an arrogant, meddling
empire while cosying up to Washington's most irksome adversaries.
But a collapse in oil revenues threatens to curb Venezuelan largesse to
its would-be allies, raising questions about whether this approach to
foreign policy is sustainable.
"Falling oil prices are obviously going to weaken Venezuela's influence
in the region, because it is based on economic power,"says Heinz
Dieterich, a professor at Mexico's Metropolitan University and a former
adviser to the Venezuelan government.
He argues that Venezuela will have trouble fulfilling its ambitious
spending plans, which include massive regional infrastructure projects,
expensive foreign aid programmes and military purchases – not to mention
growing domestic spending commitments.
By some estimates Venezuela has either spent or committed itself to
spending more than $30bn (€21bn £19bn) on supporting like-minded
governments in the region, by direct payments, cheap oil financing,
buying up debt or building oil refineries – most of them still at the
The principal vehicle for this has been the Bolivarian Alternative for
the Americas, a rival organisation to the US-led Free Trade Area of the
Americas, which includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica
and Honduras, with Ecuador and Haiti as observers. Critics dismiss it as
a collection of client states feeding off Venezuelan oil money. Demetrio
Boersner, a former Venezuelan diplomat, says: "There has been a great
deal of opportunism and even cynical attitudes towards Chávez from
countries in the region, which have been only too happy to accept his
Roy Daza,president of the Venezuelan national assembly's foreign affairs
committee, says at the heart of Venezuela's foreign policy is the aim of
helping to build a "multipolar world" and end US hegemony.
This means building alliances with Washington antagonists such as
Russia, Iran and China, although Mr Daza emphasises that these
partnerships are also aimed at attracting foreign investment to
diversify Venezuela's economy and reduce dependence on oil exports.
A new government in the US presents a further challenge for Mr Chávez.
He has tended to blame Washington to deflect attention from domestic
problems but this strategy may lack credibility under an Obama
administration, which is unlikely to be as unpopular in the Americas as
that of President George W. Bush.
Peter de Shazo, who runs the Americas programme for the Centre for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says any improvement
in relations with the US will depend on Mr Chávez's willingness to
co-operate on issues, such as combating drug trafficking. "The ball is
in his court," he says.
But Mr Chávez is unlikely to stop railing against Washington and the US
free market model soon, according to Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan
ambassador to the UN.
"Chávez badly needs the US as an enemy: this has been the foundation of
both his domestic and foreign policies," says Mr Arria. "Without this,
he will be fighting his own shadow – he will be like Castro without the
US trade embargo."