President Elect Barack Obama
Care of the Honorable Congressman Rahm Emanuel
--- --- --- --- --- ---
Dear Senator Obama
I am allowing myself to write you this short note in order to congratulate you for your victory which shows once again the ability of the United States to reinvent itself at critical times. I have had to defend this virtue of your great country over the years that I have been blogging about Venezuela mostly to an US audience which quite often did not believe as much in your country as I do.
My objective here is to summarize as much as possible what the Venezuela situation is. You are in luck; you come to office at a time where the star of President Chavez is fading and I certainly hope that your new administration will not do anything mistakenly to brighten it up again. Fortunately whatever misfortunes Chavez is suffering they are not really due to the actions of your predecessor so your incoming staff will be able to start from scratch its Venezuelan policies.
I have been holding a noted Venezuelan blog since 2003 and I have had the good fortune to reach many people in the United States. I have observed with anguish the ineffective actions the U.S. had undertaken to try to weaken Chavez hold on power. Having lived for one decade and a half in diverse academic locales of the East Coast I do understand how difficult it is for a rational US State Department official to make any sense of what is going on in Venezuela since 1998 (or even earlier for that matter). The good news here is that the country has changed considerably since the Clinton administration and thus many of the huge archives on Venezuela lodged at Foggy Bottom may remain undisturbed in their dust collecting mission.
To deal with Venezuela it is essential to understand a very single point: the character of Hugo Chavez. He is an unstable narcissistic personality whose only objective in life is to find ways to be reelected president of Venezuela. All means are good for him; all sorts of scandalous abuses can be committed as long as they favor his hold on the country and destroy any possible emerging democratic group that could constitute an alternative. I can write that most of the important stuff that happens within or about Venezuela is related or due to this single fact.
Chavez success so far is due to the high oil prices that the Iraq war and the China/India economic growth contributed to create. With these prices going down in recent month, albeit briefly as oil prices are sure to increase again, the US has its best window of opportunity to act in the Western Hemisphere to recover its due leadership. That is right; any handling of Chavez must be made within an ample policy towards Latin America. Chavez has had enough money to finance a wide array of anti US groups that have even managed to reach power in several countries. Chavez’s intrigues were also helped by the understandable obsession of the US with Iraq and Afghanistan. I am with those who think that the real future of the US lies in this hemisphere more than in Asia or Africa. That the Hispanic community in the US is taking over in numbers your own community is as good as a red light I can think of. I believe that you are uniquely qualified to find ways in which all of these communities can communicate better; offering a general approach to Latin America can further help mutual understanding within the U.S. The countries that more resemble the US in its ethnic composition are Venezuela and Brazil where no ethnic group dominates, just as it is slowly becoming the case in the U.S. Luckily, if there is a mad house in Venezuela at least Brazil offers the U.S. a more reliable partner, something that your predecessor had the intelligence to understand before it was too late. Whatever policies he left you on Brazil they are probably the only ones worth following and expanding south of the Caribbean.
It certainly is not for me to even suggest you how to handle matters, you will have bright people doing these studies for you. I can only modestly state my wish list about what your policy should cover for Latin America.
The U.S. should seek by all means to improve trade with Latin America. Any one looking at the map can see that whether ships leave from the East or West Coast, shipping costs are lower if they are headed South. Our climates compensates for each one’s winters. As a continent our intellectual and cultural elites have long lost their hang-ups about English as a commercial and as cultural language, in ways that Europe and Asia still lack. In my small home town of San Felipe McDonald and Burger King, for better or worse, unite anti and pro Chavez families around the kids’ playground. This happens just as Mexican wonders have slowly conquered North American palates. I do not know of any “gringo” that resisted the splendor of Venezuela’s modest arepa. For us there is no North or South America, only one America that starts at the Bering straight and finishes at the Cape Horn. We have long ago understood this and it is time that your county joins us in this outlook. Thus my first wish: do not take us for granted because of our proximity and our affinity to Disney World family vacations for those of us who can afford them. That is exactly why the U.S. lost so much ground since 9/11 as you thought we would be waiting for you to solve your problems. Fidel Castro understood that very well and used Chavez and his money to score big points against you.
A trade policy should also be inspired from the European Union success. The United States should be generous at least in the first years of any trade treaty. You need to improve the wealth generation of your hemispheric partners. That is the only way that in the long term you will solve the immigration question. When I was a kid in France for holidays one could still meet a “Spanish” maid or a “Portuguese” handy man. These days are over; neither Portuguese nor Spaniards have any need to go to France to eke out a living. If Spain and Portugal were helped generously they also had to modernize their countries fast, creating a working legal frame and even becoming models of Human Rights respect after decades of ferocious dictatorships. Any FTA your country offers can ask such things and reward accordingly their accomplishment. We have an interesting advantage over your Asian trading partners. For all our awkwardness in embracing modern society and technology you will always find easier to inspect us to verify that we are complying with treaties on Labor and Human Rights. Outside of Cuba any country south of the Rio Grande is of much easier access and supervision than inner China.
And thus we reach my second wish: get rid of the embargo to Cuba. It has not worked, the result is for all to see. It offers a comfortable excuse to Castro abuses. Besides, the Florida Cubans did not vote for you and yet you carried the state. No U.S. president has had such a chance as to get rid of a self inflicted wound, one of the last inheritances of the Cold War. I can assure you that no other measure such as lifting the embargo would restore the image of the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere, repair years of neglect and weaken dramatically your adversaries, starting with the Castro brothers and their enabler, Chavez. However this also must meet certain conditions. You cannot do that for free and you should at least cash at home by telling down some of your most leftist supporters who think that glorifying a criminal by wearing his face on a t-shirt is the coolest thing. Offering Cuba to end the embargo while at the same time condemning energetically the crimes committed by the revolution will be a powerful first step, if you stick to that position. This means allowing trade and humanitarian help, but keeping frozen relations until at least all prisoners are released and circulation inside the island is reasonably fluid. There is an additional benefit about lifting the embargo on your own volition: you do not need to soil yourself by meeting with the Castro brothers. This by itself sends the final message that Cubans are great and the Castro brothers are scum. Imagine how this will work in the long run.
Cuba brings us finally to Venezuela since it is its life saver. Do not worry about Venezuela much. Do not worry about meeting Chavez; you do not need to do so. Iran is a much bigger problem for you. Your campaign talk about making it a national policy to decrease the U.S. dependency on Venezuelan and Middle East oil has already created wonders. The Middle East is no rush to bring back up oil prices that could bankrupt their precious investments in the West. And in Venezuela Chavez has felt obliged to salute your elections in terms that we would not have thought possible a few weeks ago. You just need to demonstrate that even if slow, the Federal government will indeed act steadily to drop Venezuelan oil imports. The very nature of your skin color and the very wish to become free of oil blackmail have neutered Chavez to an extent you will find amazing once your staff explores these issues. True, he is still dangerous and must be watched and weakened at every possible opportunity. How to do that?
Venezuela has been made a mess under Chavez. More than ever we depend from imports for our food. We produce nothing worth exporting except oil. We could not negotiate any FTA even if we wanted to: what could we possibly peddle in Chicago? In real life Chavez is a punishment that we bought on ourselves as a society. Decades of populism have created a social structure that thinks it is OK to depend from the state largesse. And this has affected our politics as we have indeed created the society “to the victors belong the spoils”. Thus anti Chavez and pro Chavez people are equally damaged and need to be taught together a lesson in real life. Chavez collapse, I believe, will bring that home. And Chavez collapse is inevitable as the country is producing less self sustaining items. But might still take some time and more importantly that collapse cannot be effected by the U.S. under any guise.
Large sectors of the Venezuelan opposition are unwillingly to oppose Chavez as they should because naively they think that one day or another you will get rid of Chavez. Paradoxically the help you gave the Venezuelan political opposition has made it even more incompetent as it sat down expecting from more from the U.S. It is not that things such as the NED grants were useless; they did create some of the best modern political structures within the opposition. But they also allowed a ruthless Chavez to create an “us versus them” feeling while the opposition quietly sat waiting for Sumate, to name an example, to get rid of Chavez. Paradoxically your help weakened the resolve of the opposition while it gave propaganda support for Chavez radical posturing. It was worth a try, but now it is over.
Your first task is to reassure Chavez that you will never support anything that can threaten his rule as long as he is elected in a verifiable democratic way (which he is not anymore). You must let the opposition know that they are on their own and that the only thing you can do for them is to offer political asylum to justified cases. The opposition must understand that if they really think that Chavez is a dictator then they should be willing to pay the price to regain their democracy. That price will never be paid with U.S. military, even if Chavez were crazy enough to cut off oil supply to the U.S. He will not do so anyway, oil production is falling and Venezuela is already discretely privatizing some sectors of Venezuelan oil. The new operators will be delighted to sell their production to the closest market at hand.
Thus armed with patience and a clear track of what you must do, you can sit down and wait for Chavez demise, saving your energies and scarce cash for countries more worthy of your attention. Sooner or alter, as the most culturally Americanized country in South America, Venezuela will rejoin the fold. The only thing you need to do is to denounce any deviation of Chavez from the democratic path and demand that democratic Latin American countries do so if they want to be partners in a Western Hemisphere area of prosperity, freedom and democracy. Trust me on that one, once your clarity and leadership rise many will be willing to follow you in ways they could never follow Clinton and even less Bush.
I am sorry that as a Venezuelan I must belittle my country this way, but I cannot find a redeeming quality in what pro Chavez people support today. Their “revolutionary” ideals of social justice have been long swallowed by the catastrophic corruption which has become the glue that holds together the Chavez edifice. And the opposition remains weak, too many of them hoping to reach some agreement with Chavez so crumbs will reach them. Very few have shown the mettle that was required in these difficult times. But this is changing; I want to believe that also in Venezuela “we can”.
May you bring some peace and rest to this weary world.