PMBComment: this week, the Interamerican Dialogue chose to squander its usually relevant/informative Q&A feature asking its panel of “experts” to answer the following question:
Will New Hurricane Aid Win Venezuela's Chavez New Friends in the US?
Is this a really pertinent question given what else is going on in the region? Did the crisis in Nicaragua not require urgent OAS intervention this same week? Are momentous elections not approaching in Bolivia? Is the demobilization plan in Colombia not being plagued by all sorts of schemes to insure that criminals get no more than a slap in the wrist? Does the presence of Mexican military contingents in the devastated Gulf Coast indicate that Fox understood his glaring lapse on 9/11? Or, if they wanted to focus on Venezuela, they could have asked about the consequences of evidence of widespread involvement by Venezuelan’s National Guard in drug related activities? No, they chose to focus on a discredited charade; on a pathetic effort to confuse and defraud US public opinion; on a blatant effort to trigger partisan bickering in the US in order to deviate from a nation’s – and an administration’s - legitimate and informed concern about the state of democracy in Venezuela.
But it is not the Dialogue that wins the “who butters your toast?” award. That prize goes – once again – to that incorrigible master of “moral equivalency” Jennifer McCoy, of the Carter Center (and, according to rumors, now seeking employment at the OAS…just what the place needs!). In her answer to the irrelevant question, Ms. McCoy seems to regurgitate the memoranda and talking sheets prepared by Chavez’s US lobbyists and now making their futile rounds in Capitol Hill and newsrooms across America.
I have often thought of Jennifer as a “naïve” gringa, but her answer below, and her deafening silence on grave developments in Venezuela since the cartersanctioned referendum, have convinced me that “naive”, “moral”, “McCoy” and “Jennifer” do not rhyme at all. PMB
Guest Comment: Jennifer L. McCoy: "Chavez's offer of aid to the US will receive the same divided reaction that his government produces here and abroad. His supporters in the US and elsewhere will see it as a generous humanitarian offer to the American people, distinguishing his dispute with the US government from Venezuela's friendship with American citizens. His detractors will see it as a political ploy and another chance to take a jab at the Bush administration, in which he delights. The offer follows a previous offer to provide discounted gasoline to poor Americans, and to include US citizens in a new Cuban-Venezuelan program to provide eyesight recovery surgery to up to 200,000 Latin Americans per year, with Venezuela providing the transportation to Cuba and Cuba providing the medical expertise. Chavez's larger oil diplomacy, in which he has been able to use bountiful petro revenues not only to benefit Venezuelan poor, but also to provide discounted energy plans to his Caribbean and Latin American neighbors, is part of a global foreign policy aimed at providing a counter-balance to US dominance in the Hemisphere and in the world. In the case of Katrina, while the US has yet to respond to Cuba's offer to send up to 1,500 epidemiologists and physicians to help, Venezuela's offer of cash donations and discounted gasoline to hurricane victims could be carried out directly by the Citgo gas stations and remaining working refinery in Louisiana (subsidiaries of Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA), without the need for the direct cooperation of the US government."
A: Board Comment: Diego Arria: "'Charity starts at home' says an old Spanish proverb, but not for Chavez, whose absolute control of the Venezuelan people's resources has turned him into a tropical Santa Claus throwing money around like there was no tomorrow. Katrina is just another opportunity for him to antagonize the US at the expense of the poor Venezuelan people—thousands of them still waiting for the regime to provide help for the mudslides of December 15, 1999, when about 30,000 people died (the greatest tragedy in Venezuela's history). During that crisis, Chavez—who calls himself 'the first soldier of the Republic'—only appeared publicly 48 hours after the catastrophe, and, worse still, refused the humanitarian assistance offered by the US government because he did not want 'US soldiers in our country'. Finally, it should not come as a surprise that the Chavez donation is the largest among the countries in the region. After all, the other countries of the region are accountable to their own public institutions and cannot dispose of resources at their will or whim like the Chavez regime. But they certainly are truer friends of the people of the United States. A head of state who calls the United States 'the greatest terrorist on earth' and 'the worst empire in the history of man,' is not offering aid as a humanitarian."
A: Guest Comment: Javier Corrales: "I would be careful not to overreact in either direction to Venezuela's offer of aid. The offer is praiseworthy insofar as those who are in need will be helped, but it is also an offer that is easy for Venezuela to make, since Venezuela is currently awash with oil money. For that reason, I would caution against treating the offer as a true test or a turning point in Chavez's foreign or domestic policies. President Chavez has quite a lot of experience with flooding disasters at home. Two such disasters occurred under his watch-one in December 1999 that resulted in 15,000 deaths, and a less catastrophic one in February 2005, resulting in 16 deaths. Ironically, Chavez was accused on both occasions, but especially in 2005, for lack of preparedness, inadequate response, and opportunism. Perhaps by now the Chavez administration may have some technical advice to share with the United States on mistakes to avoid during rescue and relocation operations. If either the aid or advice materializes, the United States should gratefully accept both. The United States should not repeat Chavez's mistake in 1999 of refusing aid by turning back a US Navy ship bringing help to flood victims. Refusing aid was bad for the president's image, and needless to say, for the victims."
A: Guest Comment: Michael Skol: "Unfortunately for US-Venezuelan relations, Chavez's offer is neither humanitarian nor diplomatic. Its purpose is to embarrass the United States and highlight his own oil-fueled pretensions as a 21st Century Bolivar rescuing the Hemisphere from American influence. Just the kind of infuriating bravado that Castro would have perpetrated had he Chavez's billions. But Castro has something better now than billions: he has Chavez—and what a wonderful toy that is. Chavez's gambit will win no friends in the US that matter, just the naive who may not understand how thoroughly Chavez is undermining the development of his own country and any neighbors willing to fall for his tragic-comic routine."
A: Guest Comment: Vinay Jawahar: "Chavez's latest gestures hardly qualify as 'backdoor diplomacy.' They are quite the opposite—highly public statements that embarrass the US government and burnish Chavez's own image in Latin America and, to a lesser extent, in the United States. Though the Venezuelan government's aid offer is extremely generous, and probably not insincere, there is very clearly a political calculus involved. Imagine the rhetorical value of a developing country with a per capita income significantly lower than that of the United States offering to help the US poor. This allows the Venezuelan government to argue (disingenuously, it should be noted) that it is not anti-American, but rather, anti-Bush administration. That it might convince some in the United States is, in my opinion, not that important to Chavez. In fact, the intended consumers of these gestures are probably other Latin American governments and their citizens, whose support Chavez seeks. Chavez had already offered Venezuelan assistance to the US poor even before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf, in order to trumpet the superiority of the Venezuelan model of governance over capitalism and liberal democracy. The destruction wrought by Katrina only allowed him to make his point more forcefully. Thus, Chavez's latest offer of assistance, while welcome, is also an opportunity to thumb his nose at the US government in order to score some points at Bush's expense and provoke an overreaction from the United States. Luckily, Washington seems to have decided not to take the bait."
Jennifer L. McCoy is Director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center in Atlanta and Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University.
Diego Arria is a member of the Advisor board and former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations.
Javier Corrales is Associate Professor of Political Science at Amherst College.
Michael Skol is President of Skol and Associates and former US ambassador to Venezuela.
Vinay Jawahar is a Program Associate at the Inter-American Dialogue.