Check out this short analysis at Foreign Policy in Focus. The text follows below:
Bush and Chávez
The rapidly deteriorating relations between the United States and Venezuela have reached a new level of tension. The two nations broke off official diplomatic channels and exchanged ambassadorial expulsions. On September 11, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy from Caracas, accusing the diplomat of spearheading a plot to stage a coup against him. Washington answered in turn the following day, closing communications with Caracas, and inviting Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Herrera to leave the country. The Treasury Department salted the wounds still further later that day, freezing the assets of Venezuelan intelligence officers it accuses of aiding FARC guerillas in Colombia.
This latest round of diplomatic brinksmanship is not without precedent. U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been sour for some time now, and neither country seems keen on reconciliation. Chávez and U.S. President George W. Bush have both made a show of publicly insulting the other, and relations have frayed accordingly. To their mutual detriment, and the amusement of some observers, Washington and Caracas have largely relegated their interactions to hollow threats, ad hominem attacks and imprudent grandstanding.
Still, the most recent episode in the U.S.-Venezuelan diplomacy soap opera offers cause for concern. For one, the current moment is without precedent in the post-Cold War era as a perceptible redistribution in the global balance of power is underway in the international arena. Closer to home, both Venezuela and the United States — and their substantially weakened ruling parties — face impending national elections this coming November. The combined dynamics of transitional change at the international and domestic levels obscures once clear paths to resolving diplomatic disputes and precludes the confident prediction of likely outcomes.
Shadow of War
Compounding this uncertainty is the more worrisome shadow of war that increasingly casts a pale over U.S.-Venezuelan relations. The frequency with which the government deploys war discourse in its political propaganda is a striking feature of Venezuelan politics. Within the past six months alone, Chávez has threatened to invade Colombia, intercede militarily in Bolivia's violent secessionist squabbles, and put down future secessionist activities at home. Indeed, he has advised Venezuelans that they must prepare for the coming "people's war" for Latin America, and has warned repeatedly of impending invasion by the region's hegemonic neighbor to the north.
Any tendencies toward armed conflict that Chávez may harbor have been squarely matched by aggressive American action. Washington announced plans this May to open a military base in the Guajira region of Colombia, a territorial expanse straddling the Venezuelan border. The move sounded alarm bells in Caracas, prompting Chávez to angrily proclaim that Venezuela "will not allow the Colombian government to give La Guajira to the empire." In response, the United States resorted to gunboat diplomacy, reactivating its Caribbean Fourth Fleet, a unit that was previously disbanded in 1950. Upping the ante still further, the American government added a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the fleet's roster, specifically commissioned to patrol the northern coast of South America.
In the unlikely event that violence erupts, Venezuela will be materially well-equipped. Chávez has focused considerable state funds on a bonanza of military buildup. From Russia alone Venezuela has purchased fighter jets, submarines, attack boats, helicopters, armored vehicles, and surface-to-air missiles, not to mention hundreds of thousands of guns and other assault weapons. The Chinese and Iranians have also done their part, kicking in a radar defense system and scores of rocket-related weaponry. In total, the International Institute for Strategic Studies finds that Venezuela's current annual military budget compares regionally only on a per-capita basis with that of Chile during the height of Pinochet's power.
Complicating matters further, Russia is back on the scene, directly asserting influence over regional politics. As international alarm at Russia's incursions into Georgia this past month reached fever pitch, Moscow quietly negotiated a joint military maneuvers agreement with Chávez regime. In addition to future naval exercises and increased information sharing, Caracas invited the Kremlin to send a pair of nuclear-capable bombers to dock on Venezuelan soil. While the planes are not equipped with nuclear weapons, the significance of these developments is clear. "It is a warning. Russia is with us," Chávez announced. "We are strategic allies. It is a message to the empire. Venezuela is no longer poor and alone."
Armed Confrontation Unlikely
The good news, however, is that the chances of armed confrontation are virtually none. Each side simply has too much to lose. Despite the bluster and machismo coloring rhetoric issuing from both sides, Venezuela and the United States have maintained robustly harmonious economic relations. In return for cut-rate oil prices, Washington has gladly assumed the mantle of chief sponsor of Venezuelan oil. With its closest political allies all located half a world away, Caracas has had little choice but to rely on the United States for the great majority of its exports. Were Chávez to cut off sales to his U.S. trade partners — as he has repeatedly threatened to do — the move would certainly cost Caracas dearly.
With less to lose in this futile horn-locking, the United States ought to carefully measure its response to Chávez's goading. The White House has successfully dismantled positive public opinion toward the United States in Latin America during its tenure, a period that has witnessed a rising tide of governments wary of U.S. engagement. Indeed, Washington has played torero to Chávez's bull-in-a-china-shop style politics for too long. U.S. antagonism merely strengthens the Chávez government, a regime desperately in need of popular support as its contradictions and shortcomings become increasingly evident.
Instead of playing tit-for-tat with Chávez — a game that traditionally diminishes American prestige and influence in the region, Washington might consider a strategy of cautious engagement with Caracas. Though unlikely, the White House could responsibly offer to a return to normalized relations with Venezuela in the name of regional security. Were Chávez to accept such an offer, the United States would have effectively neutralized his claims of aggressive American imperialism. Were Chávez to refuse, his diminishing credibility would further erode.
Despite its disastrous diplomatic resume thus far, the White House is presented with a rare chance to gain the upper hand in its relations with Caracas. With falling oil prices, and his government's pledges of progress unfulfilled, Chávez finds his room for maneuver greatly confined. Notwithstanding his recent rant against the imperial "yanquis," Chávez indicated as much in an uncharacteristically modest statement designed for international consumption. "We don't have any other plan, it was only a strong diplomatic gesture," he said. "Only the United States can change our…relationship."
The Bush administration and its successor government — whether it's an Obama or a McCain administration — should seize on this observation and the opportunities it offers. Otherwise, the next four years of U.S.-Venezuelan relations will resemble the previous eight: a period marked by rancor, suspicion, and missed opportunities.