Monday, July 21, 2008

Would an Obama Presidency Lead to More Dialogue with Chavez?

Last week, Erwin C. at the Latin Americanist asked whether an Obama presidency would be bad for Chavez. It's actually an important question: Chavez did get elected in 1998, but really came to global prominence after Bush's administration supported (perhaps materially) the failed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002; since then, few can contest the fact that Chavez's role has grown thanks to his rhetorical and ideological role in challenging Bush and the American empire every chance he gets. But Chavez has made it clear that, while he does not like Bush, he does not dislike the U.S., either, a fact reinforced by the fact that, from 1998 to 2002, Chavez's anti-U.S.-administration (and this is a very important distinction from "anti-U.S." as an attack on American citizens - Chavez's rhetoric almost always takes on politicians in the U.S. and their policies, and not the people or our particular system of democracy) stance was much more toned down.

I've wondered privately (and not too thoroughly) if Chavez would readjust his rhetoric were Obama to win. On the one hand, it's not hard to see how things would almost have to improve, given simply that Obama never openly supported the coup attempt of 2002 against Chavez; on the other hand, Chavez's rhetoric has emphasized anti-imperialism as much as it has targeted Bush, and what Chavez perceives as the U.S.'s structural imperialism won't simply disappear just because Obama may be president. Complicating the matters are to what degree (if any) Chavez's reputation among some sectors of the world are based at least in part on his image as a leading voice of the anti-imperialism movement. If Chavez were to thaw relations with Obama, would his position among some sectors of the left and the "developing world" be threatened at least somewhat, given that that image is based so strongly on his attacks on the Bush administration?

Well, in a follow-up post at the Latin Americanist, Chavez apparently indicated that an Obama administration may not change his attitude towards the U.S. government much. Of course Chavez's claim that "The two candidates for the U.S. presidency attack us equally, they attack us defending the interests of the empire," is ridiculous. Regardless of claims of "empire," the fact that Obama has been willing to dialogue with Chavez while McCain wants to continue the Bush position would seem to be strong enough an indicator of how erroneous it is to claim Obama and McCain treat Venezuela "equally." While it's true that Obama has sharpened his rhetoric on Chavez a bit in the past few weeks, I see little reason at this point to believe it's anything more than a political ploy to appeal to the broader electorate. Even if it isn't, the differences between Obama and McCain are so substantive in foreign policy alone that there's no way that Chavez's claim that Obama and McCain are equal has any real substance. It may be different shades of gray from Chavez's ideological point of view, but I think anybody with the slightest notion of the subtleties of American politics can understand how major the differences between Obama and McCain are.

As to whether or not an Obama administration more open to dialogue would be a threat to Chavez's role as an anti-imperial leader who rails against Bush, I'm not sure. Given how much the U.S. and Venezuela still need each other for oil, as well as Chavez's slipping (though far from extinct) influence in the hemisphere, I really can't see how warming the relationship with the U.S. with an Obama administration would necessarily hurt; I think most global leaders are practical enough in their plans for their countries (Bush being an exception) that they won't think less of Chavez simply because he spent the last 6 years railing against the Bush empire but might open to an Obama administration. And if McCain were to win the election, all of the above would be rendered moot, as we'd be exposed to at least another 4 years of the same idiocy from Washington that we've put up with for the last 6 years (in terms of Venezuela). But I think ultimately that neither Obama nor Chavez would really be willing, at least at the beginning, to totally exclude any possibility of opening up or thawing of relations between Venezuela and the U.S. without some diplomatic pretext setting the two men at odds. Regardless of the outcome, the relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela will be very interesting to watch in the first year or so of the administration if Obama wins the presidency, and it will definitely be worth paying attention to the rhetoric of Obama and Chavez up to the November elections.