U.S.-Venezuelan Relations: Imperialism and Revolution
5 JANUARY 2010, by James Petras*
President Chavez’s election in 1998 marked a decline of US hegemony in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. In this study, James Petras reminds us that Washington’s chief interest in overthrowing Chavez was political, not economic, and revolved around his steadfast opposition to the Bush administration’s "War on Terror" doctrine. Washington feared that Chavez’ dissent might provide an alternative pole for the newly emerging ‘center-left’ regimes in the continent. Today, Petras reconceptualizes US-Venezuelan relations in light of a declining US economic and rising military empire, as a compensatory mechanism for sustaining hegemony and for restoring client domestic elites to power.
Historically Latin America has been of great importance to the United States on numerous counts: the region has in the past, provided the US with a trade surplus; its outflows of licit and ill-begotten funds to US banks, numbers annually in the tens of billions; the US has been, up to recently, the major trading partner in the region; Latin America has provided a lucrative outlet for US buyouts of oil, telecoms, banking and related strategic mining companies during the golden age of imperial pillage (1975 – 1999). Throughout most of the 20th century the US could rely on the vote of its client regimes in the United Nations (UN), the Organization of American States (OAS) and in the international financial institution (IMF, WB, IDB) to back its efforts to sustain its global political and economic expansion.
In the latter half of the 20th century Latin America was an important target for the expansion of US based agro-mineral, transport (Ford, General Motors and Chrysler), farm machinery and other multi-national manufacturers. Within this regional pattern of US empire building, each country played a different role: Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Columbia were targeted by manufacturing multi-national corporations (MNC) banks and exporters; Central America and the Caribbean for tropical fruits, tourism and export platforms, Bolivia, Peru and Chile for minerals; Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador for oil and gas. Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, were principle suppliers of cheap labor in the agricultural, construction and low paid service sector.
Within this imperial matrix, Venezuela was of special importance as the most important provider of petroleum. This was especially true in times of heightened US and Israeli induced political hostility and military warfare in the Middle East, with the onset of the US invasion of Iraq and sanctions against Iran, Sudan and other Muslim oil suppliers.
Under US hegemony Venezuela was a major player in the US effort to isolate and undermine the Cuban revolutionary government. Venezuelan client regimes played a major role in support of the successful US led effort to expel Cuba from the OAS; in 1961 and brokering a deal in the early 1990’s to disarm the guerillas in El Salvador and Guatemala without regime or structural changes in exchange for legal status of the ex-combatants. In short, Venezuelan regimes played a strategic role in policing the Central American-Caribbean region, a supplier of oil and as an important regional market for US exports.
For Venezuela the benefits of its relations with the US were highly skewed to the upper and the affluent middle classes. They were able to import luxury goods with low tariffs and invest in real estate, especially in south Florida. The business and banking elite were able to “associate” in joint ventures with US MNC especially in the lucrative oil, gas, aluminum and refinery sectors. US military training missions and joint military exercises provided a seemingly reliable force to defend ruling class interests and repress popular protests and revolts. The benefits for the popular classes, mainly US consumer imports, were far outweighed by the losses incurred through the outflow of income in the form of royalties, interest, profits and rents. Even more prejudicial were the US promoted neo-liberal policies which undermined the social safety net, increased economic vulnerability to market volatility and led to a two decade long crises culminating in a double digit decline in living standards (1979 – 1999).
Toward Conceptualizing US-Venezuelan Relations
Several key concepts are central to the understanding of US-Venezuelan relations in the past and present Chavez era.
These include the notion of ‘hegemony’ in which the ideas and interests of Washington are accepted and internalized by the Venezuelan ruling and governing class. Hegemony was never effective throughout Venezuelan class and civil society. “Counter-hegemonic” ideologies and definitions of socio-economic interests existed with varying degree of intensity and organization throughout the post 1958 revolutionary period. In the 1960’s mass movements, guerilla organizations and sectors of the trade unions formed part of a nationalist and socialist counter-hegemonic bloc.
Venezuelan-US relations were not uniform despite substantial continuities over time. Despite close relations and economic dependence especially during the 1960’s counter-insurgency period, Venezuela was one of the original promoters of OPEC, nationalized the oil industry (1976), opposed the US backed Somoza regime and White House plans to intervene to block a Sandinista victory (in 1979). The regression from nationalist capitalism to US sponsored neo-liberalism in the late 1980’s and 1990’s reflected a period of maximum US hegemony, a phenomena that took place throughout Latin America in the 1990’s.
The election and re-election of President Chavez beginning in 1998 through the first decade of the new century marked a decline of US hegemony in the governing and popular classes but not among the business elite, trade union officials (CTV) and sectors of the military and public sector elite especially in the state oil company (PDVSA). The decline in US hegemony was influenced by the change in the power configuration governing Venezuela, the severe economic crises in 2000 – 2002, the demise and overthrow of client regimes in key Latin American countries and the rise of radical social movements and left center regimes.
Accelerating the ‘loss of presence of the US’ and ‘policing’ of Latin America, were the wars in the Middle East, Iraq, South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan) and the expanding economic role and trading relations between Latin America and Asia (mainly China). The commodity boom between 2003 –2008 further eroded US leverage via the IMF and WB and enhanced the counter-hegemonic policies of the center-left regimes especially inVenezuela.
A key concept toward understanding the decline of US hegemony over Venezuela relates to “pivotal events”. This concept refers to major political conflicts which trigger a realignment of inter-state relations and changes the correlation of domestic socio-political forces. In our study President’s Bush’s launch of the “War on Terror” following 9/11/01 involving the invasion of Afghanistan and claims to extra-territorial rights to pursue and assassinate adversaries dubbed “terrorists” was rejected by President Chavez (“you can’t fight terror with terror”). These events triggered far reaching consequences in US-Venezuelan relations.
Related to the above, our conceptualization of US-Venezuelan relations emphasizes the high degree of inter-action between global policies and regional conflicts. In operational terms the attempt by Washington to impose universal/global conformity to its war on terrorism led to a US backed coup, which in turn fueled Chavez’ policy of extra hemispheric alignments with adversaries of the White House.
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U.S.-Venezuelan Relations: Imperialism and Revolution [Voltaire]