By Víctor M. Mijares, 2011 Americas Project fellow; research fellow, German Institute of Global and Area Studies; and assistant professor of political science, Universidad Simón Bolívar
In contrast to the generally accepted view of U.S. policy toward hostile regimes, especially in the Caribbean basin, Washington is not trying to destabilize the government of Venezuela. In fact, it is making efforts to keep Nicolás Maduro in office. This statement is based on the observation of concrete actions in connection with interests expressed by the Obama administration in the past few months. With U.S. foreign policy in a precarious position — facing challenges from ISIS, Russia and China — stabilizing the Maduro government looks like the most rational option to support the White House’s current interests in the Western Hemisphere.
The question arises: Why stabilize the Maduro administration? The government of Venezuela has been openly opposed to U.S. interests almost since former President Hugo Chávez took power. After Chávez was briefly overthrown in 2002, Washington became the architect of a destabilization process, according to Venezuelan propaganda. Chávez did not have a hard time selling that story, given two facts: first, the State Department’s quick recognition of Pedro Carmona’s new government; and second, the United States’ history of direct and indirect interventions in Latin America. However, domestic and international politics have significantly changed since the tense Bush-Chávez relationship. The Obama administration has embarked on a process of rapprochement with Cuba — Venezuela’s key ideological ally — while incorporating Colombia into a scheme of collective defense within the NATO framework and minimizing friction with Brazil — an ambivalent but important partner in a potential hemisphere security consortium.
Secretary of State John Kerry knows the Venezuelan president well. Their relationship goes back to the Boston Group, when both, representing their respective governments, maintained an open channel of political dialogue between Washington and Caracas. While Kerry cannot be considered a friend of the Venezuelan regime, he understands the internal complexity of the political movement founded by Chávez, the so-called Chavismo. Presumably, Kerry is aware of the different powers with which Maduro has to negotiate his executive decisions. Although, strategically speaking, the survival of the “Bolivarian Revolution” — Hugo Chávez's leftist social program — does not fit into the United States’ geopolitical interests, it seems that the U.S. is taking a tactical approach in scope and time, following a principle of prevention to inhibit a violent, unstable situation in Venezuela. According to this criterion, providing the bases for a peaceful mutation of Chavismo is a priority in the reconfiguration of hemispheric relations, since the Obama administration is trying to sell a “good neighbor policy” to the Latin American public and minimization of military intervention abroad to the American public.
The stabilization of Maduro’s administration is an arduous and unpleasant labor. It requires bilateral coordination with two key countries in the region: Colombia and Brazil. But it also requires implicit agreements with rival super powers, including China and Russia — Venezuela’s main creditor and main arms supplier, respectively. The convergence of diverse interests in the stabilization of the Venezuelan regime has made for strange bedfellows. The means of stabilization are also striking. The U.S. government is not only having to passively tolerate anti-American rhetoric — traditionally used by several Latin American governments and a favorite of Chávez — but also accept new visa requirements for American citizens traveling to Venezuela. However, active measures against Venezuelan officials are far more impactful, such as the set of smart and selective sanctions against Chavismo leaders and other key people who might limit Maduro’s authority. Surprisingly unnoticed by media and analysts, some of these sanctions restrict the internal bargaining power of the punished officials and force them to strengthen Maduro’s leadership by showing direct support and declaring loyalty in exchange for state protection and being allowed to maintain their political positions.
As in any other foreign policy decision-making process, the complex operation of helping stabilize Maduro’s government has no guarantee. In fact, at first glance it looks like an unlikely outcome, considering the dilapidated state of the Venezuelan economy, the collapse of Maduro’s popularity and his reliance on repression. However, the questionable legitimacy of Maduro is tempered by the opposition’s fragmentation and the fact that its dominant sector within the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) is interested in laying the foundation for a controlled regime collapse. This interest in a controlled regime collapse, which relies on the assumption that the government's time is running out due to the economic crisis, could paradoxically help stabilize the regime and may postpone its collapse indefinitely. Meanwhile, Venezuelan foreign policy abandons expansionist ambitions and conforms to a survival doctrine, generating an incentive for the White House to pursue its interest of burying Chavismo at the lowest possible cost.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.