Will Venezuela’s vote affect foreign policy?

Socialist President Hugo Chavez supports “anti-imperialist” integration, but critics want oil wealth spent at home.

People stand near an election poster for Venezuelan President Chavez during a United Socialist Party of Venezuela campaign rally in Caracas
Venezuela has bolstered its international profile since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 [Reuters]

Caracas, Venezuela – He has created a new regional alliance to battle “US imperialism”, sent subsidised oil to allies around the world, built a TV network to reflect the perspectives of the “global south” and opened joint factories with Iran.

With voters in Venezuela going to the polls on Sunday, analysts say these ambitious foreign policy projects wouldn’t outlast president Hugo Chavez, if he loses for the first time since 1998.

“Before Chavez came to power there was a one-sided vision of being friends with our ‘natural ally’ the US. This has changed,” Robert Poveda Brito, a pro-government political analyst and professor, told Al Jazeera. “The principles of our foreign policy are Latin American integration and respect for self-determination.”

Foreign relations are rarely the deciding factor in elections anywhere, and with high levels of crime, massive political divides and inflation, most Venezuelans will be looking at issues closer to home when they cast ballots for either Chavez or opposition challenger Henrique Capriles.

‘Focus at home’

Still, in a tense campaign with stark policy differences, some voters are keeping an eye on developments outside Venezuela’s borders.

“I don’t agree with Chavez’s foreign policy,” Maybeth Paz, a housewife and opposition supporter, told Al Jazeera. “I think he worries more about foreign problems than our own issues.”

Grabbing international attention for supporting Libya’s former leader Muammar Gaddafi, severing relations with Israel during the war on Gaza in 2009, backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria and calling former US president George W Bush “the devil”, Chavez has undoubtedly increased Venezuela’s global profile.

When Chavez first took office, a barrel of oil cost around $8; today it’s above $100, swelling government coffers.”

“One of the most successful things Chavez has done is his international campaign,” Diego Scharifker, a student activist with the opposition, told Al Jazeera. While Chavez made a name for himself abroad, Scharifker and other opposition members believe he is exporting a failed model, and replacing measured diplomacy with oil-fuelled bombast.

“Chavez’s attempts to participate in the politics of other countries play into the perception that Venezuela is a rich country and it should have a broader influence,” Noam Lupu, researcher at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, told Al Jazeera. “It creates a nationalist feeling among certain sectors of the population.”

Oil diplomacy

With the world’s largest proven reserves and sky-high prices, petroleum underwrites Venezuela’s foreign policy endeavors. When Chavez first took office, a barrel of oil cost around $8; today it’s above $100, swelling government coffers.

Government supporters believe the president’s foreign policy deserves some credit for the rise in global prices; oil rents provide about 40 per cent of government revenue.

“In 1999, Venezuela started to comply with production quotas from OPEC [the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries,” Fernando Travieso Lugo, an adviser to Venezuela’s government on energy issues, told Al Jazeera.

Other countries in the cartel followed suit, he said, leading prices to rise to around $30 a barrel by 2004 from less than $8 in 1998. Critics scoff at this notion, arguing that Venezuela’s government can’t be given credit for rising prices, which are set by global market conditions.

Oil is responsible for about 95 per cent of Venezuela’s export earnings, according to data from Michigan State University, so high prices allow the country to expand its geopolitical footprint by opening new embassies and providing discounted crude to allies through initiatives such as Petrocaribe, an alliance of Caribbean island states and Venezuela where oil is sold on preferential terms.

Regional integration

Seventeen nations are receiving oil aid from Venezuela, with Cuba alone reaping about $3bn a year in crude in exchange for the services of doctors. Nicaragua and Bolivia sometimes trade food directly for oil.

“Petrocaribe offers solidarity prices; they are not gifts,” Brito said. “It’s a cooperation programme. Our vision of integration is not only economic or mercantilist, it’s political.”

The opposition’s Capriles has promised that by 2013 “not a single free barrel of oil will leave to other countries while there are people here in need”.

While oil could be considered the glue holding foreign policy projects together, the ideological backbone is the drive to increase Latin American integration in order to establish a “multi-polar” world.

Founded in 2004, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) is a centrepiece of Chavez’s foreign policy. Named after independence hero Simon Bolivar, the block now includes Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Ecuador and St Vincent and the Grenadines, along with founding members, Cuba and Venezuela. 

Some believe Venezuela is giving more than it’s getting from ALBA. “We should always have relations with Cuba, Nicaragua and these countries, but not in the way we are having them now,” Hernando Terrazona, a shoemaker and opposition supporter, told Al Jazeera. “The current relations are not an advantage for us.”

Supporters of the Chavez model say previous groups, including the Organisation of American States (OAS), were dominated by the US, hurting the development of regional economies. By trading oil for agricultural products and doctors, Venezuela has been able to maximise competitive advantage among neighbours, strengthening the region and leading to self-determination, they say.

Socialist policies

Serious Chavistas – who deplore capitalism – believe ALBA and similar initiatives shouldn’t just follow a model of raw national interest.

“The role of the state is the promotion of development, not the promotion of private companies who want to maximise profit,” Brito said. “ALBA is a new form of integration focussed on agriculture, health and education.”

Without membership from regional heavyweights Brazil and Argentina, ALBA will have a hard time staying relevant as an institution without Venezuelan petro-dollars, critics say.

“The cost of ALBA is heavy for Venezuela in terms of subsidised oil exports,” Diana Negroponte, Venezuela analyst with the Brookings Institute, told Al Jazeera. “Capriles has indicated that he would not pursue this foreign policy.”

Outside of ALBA, Venezuela has joined Mercosur, a common market economic body comprising Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and now Venezuela (Paraguay was recently suspended following a legislative coup). Membership in this group could outlast Chavez.

The Brazil model

The opposition says it wants Venezuela’s foreign – and domestic – policies modeled on Brazil under former president Lula Ignacio de Silva, where regional integration was built without alienating domestic business.

By creating national corporate champions, such as aerospace company Embraer, oil company Petrobras and a series of engineering and infrastructure firms, supporters of the Brazilian model say soft-power diplomacy with emerging nations has economic benefits, as political ties can be leveraged into contracts for local firms.

In contrast, Chavez has alienated many domestic capitalists with his policies, making it more difficult for the state to bolster local companies overseas.

Anger from local elites does not bother supporters of the government. “We have launched a Venezuelan satellite with Chinese help,” Manuel del Corral, a Chavez supporter, told Al Jazeera.

“We are getting technology transfer from Iran and China, building products right here at home,” he said, proudly holding a Chinese cellphone. Joint ventures with allies mean motorbikes and Iranian cars are now being manufactured in Venezuela.

US trade

Despite slamming wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to convince Barack Obama to read Open Veins of Latin America, a book critical of foreign exploitation on the continent, trade between Venezuela and the US has not declined under Chavez’s watch.

If anyone claims the Bolivarian government [of Venezuela] is anti-US, that would not be true…We believe in fighting for the 99 per cent of the American people.”

– Lugo, energy adviser

“Ironically, Chávez sells a higher proportion of the country’s oil exports to the United States than did previous Venezuelan governments,” Foreign Affairs, a political journal, noted in 2011.

If Chavez wins again in October, and Barack Obama recaptures the White House in November, some analysts hope the relationship between the two states could improve.

Negroponte said that if relations don’t get better, the US could have the most to lose. “Venezuela does not need to go back to the old dependence on a US relationship,” she said. “Trade with China, Brazil and Europe is collectively more important than unilateral trade with the US.”

While the relationship between the US and Venezuela has been described by analysts as “two dogs barking at each other through a fence”, agreements between average people in the two countries will be key to moving forward, Chavez supporters said.

After receiving a letter from community groups in the Bronx asking for help paying high fuel heating bills in the winter, Citgo – the US arm of Venezuela’s state oil company – began providing cheap petrol to poor Americans in 2005. Republican politicians slammed the move as interference in domestic affairs, but average Americans were happy to receive cheap heating oil during freezing winters.

“If anyone claims the Bolivarian government [of Venezuela] is anti-US, that would not be true,” said Lugo, the energy adviser. “We believe in fighting for the 99 per cent of the American people,” he said, referencing the protest group Occupy Wall Street that battles income inequality.

On Sunday, it will be up to Venezuelans to decide if this is the right vision for them. 

Source: Al Jazeera