Wednesday, December 07, 2011

US unfazed by Chavez's latest act of bravado

Business Times - 08 Dec 2011

US unfazed by Chavez's latest act of bravado


NOW that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi cannot play any more the roles as Washington's favourite bogeymen, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has been trying to fill the void. The recent formation of a new regional bloc, called the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) - that includes 33 member states but excludes the United States and Canada - seems a strategy on the part of Mr Chavez to demonstrate that Latin American nations are gradually detaching themselves from Washington's influence.

The Venezuelan leader, taking up the mantle of the South American liberator Simon Bolivar, hosted leaders from all across Latin America and the Caribbean in Caracas last Friday to inaugurate the new continental group which he described as the 'the most important political event in our America in 100 years or more'.

Among the heads of state who had flown to the Venezuelan capital for the two-day event were Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner, Cuba's President Raúl Castro, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexico's President Felipe Calderón. Chile's president, the pro-US Sebastián Piñera, was elected the first chairperson of the new organisation.

'A giant has been born,' Mr Chavez declared, as he tried to draw a contrast between the new grouping that is supposed to promote Bolivar's goal of uniting Latin American nations against imperial domination by external powers, and the Organization of American States (OAS) which is headquartered in Washington, DC, is led by the US and includes all of the states in Latin America (and Canada) - but excludes Cuba.

The launch of Celac fits into Mr Chavez's strategy of promoting anti-Americanism as a way of strengthening his domestic political support before next year's presidential election and of shoring up Venezuela's influence in the region.

The event in Caracas registered almost no reaction in Washington where officials and lawmakers have adopted a policy of benign neglect towards the Venezuelan president, hoping to deprive him of any opportunity to win more political brownie points through a public confrontation with the US.

Shortly after becoming president, Barack Obama actually shook hands with Mr Chavez - and was blasted by Republican and conservative critics for making that gesture - during a 34-country summit of the Americas in Trinidad in April 2009, where the new US leader pledged to improve America's relationship with its Latin American neighbours as an 'equal partner'.

And in March this year, Mr Obama made his first trip to South America, visiting the continent's rising economic giant Brazil, which leads another important South American regional group called Unasur (Union of South American Nations); Chile, one of America's leading allies in the region, and El Salvador, which is led by a leftist but pro-American government.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that Latin American nations have been trying to assert their economic power and diplomatic independence, and that part of that process includes an effort to distance themselves from the US and strengthen ties with other global players, including China and the European Union.

But when it comes to the leading powers in the region - Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Mexico - this approach has not acquired anti-American overtones. In fact, Mr Obama, unlike his predecessor in office, enjoys popularity among the elites and people in the region.

Moreover, while Mr Chavez retains some support among left-leaning governments and groups in the region, Venezuela is a marginal player there, and there is very little concern in Washington that Celac will eclipse the OAS any time soon, notwithstanding Mr Chavez's bravado. He described the OAS as a 'toothless, old body' and asserted that Celac was 'born with a new spirit'. Yet while the OAS has a well-funded and a professionally managed bureaucracy, has acquired a sense of legitimacy in Latin America and has proved to be quite effective in promoting a common political and economic agenda, Celac doesn't even have a permanent secretariat or any structure for decision-making.

Interestingly enough, not unlike what is happening in East Asia where the rise of China has led America's partners in the region to support continuing US engagement there as a countervailing force vis-a-vis Beijing, the rise of Brazil as a regional economic and political power in Latin America is actually raising the interest on the part of other nations in the region to strengthen their ties with Washington in order to counterbalance Brazil's influence.

From that perspective, the OAS is seen as an effective instrument to tame aggressive regional and global powers.

And, indeed, the US Department of State issued a statement on the eve of the Celac summit that Washington would continue 'to work through the OAS as the pre-eminent multilateral organisation, speaking for the hemisphere'. The statement didn't even mention Mr Chavez by name.

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