The same President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela who rapped a gavel to close a session at the New York Stock exchange in 1999 called President Bush "the devil" in a 2006 speech at the United Nations. Last week he announced that despite rumors to the contrary and a freefalling price of oil he would continue a home heating oil charity program in the US which totaled $100 million and reached over a quarter of a million families last year. With this gesture of good will from Caracas and Bush out of office, will President-elect Obama be open to dialogue with the US' one-time ally?
US-Venezuelan relations have never been worse than those Obama will inherit. In September both countries withdrew their ambassadors. Among the many issues straining the relationship are Venezuela's close relationship with Castro's Cuba, and the Bush Administration's support for a short-lived coup d'état that temporarily ousted Chávez in 2002. The collapsing relationship between Washington and the US' fourth largest supplier of imported oil is too strategically significant to ignore: regardless of what one thinks of Chávez's politics—love him or hate him---it should be obvious that Obama could score an easy political victory by initiating a détente.
During the Democratic Party's primaries, Obama said he would meet without preconditions with heads of state from countries out of favor with the US, including Venezuela. Obama was lambasted by other presidential candidates - Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), called Obama "irresponsible, and, frankly, naive." Yet the bold stance proved popular with voters—42 percent supported it and just 34 percent opposed, according to a poll last July. Her harsh attacks on Obama's foreign policy notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton is now all set to become Obama's Secretary of State. While Clinton may oppose it, if Obama meets with Chávez, he could reap huge dividends and incur little risk.
There are at least four reasons why it is in the US' interests for President Obama to meet with President Chávez and seek a thaw. First, Obama should not allow the Bush Administration's failures in Latin America, support for the 2002 coup in Venezuela among them, to define future diplomatic relations. On the campaign trail Obama was unequivocal: "It is time for us to recognize that the future security and prosperity of the US is fundamentally tied to the future of the Americas. If we don't turn away from the policies of the past, then we won't be able to shape the future." The Bush Administration's vision for Latin America was misguided and its efforts to shape the region failed—take for example the collapse of the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations. Now the US is about to have a new President and it needs a new Latin America agenda. A bilateral meeting with Chávez would also be a concrete way to prove to American voters and the world that the "change" Obama ran on was more than just a slogan.
Second, if Obama could shape a future with Venezuela as a partner of the US in the Western Hemisphere, there are myriad areas for cooperation from the strategic—energy independence, drug interdiction, and military exchanges—to the benign. Baseball, America's national pastime is also Venezuela's most popular sport; in better days of US-Venezuelan relations Chávez threw out the first pitch at a Mets game.
Third, improving relations with Chávez may help counter China's growing influence in Latin America, where that country is directly competing with the US for natural resources, diplomatic influence, and investment opportunities. Latin America has an historic affinity with the US but China has filled the void left as the Bush Administration focused on war in the Middle East. Despite a long history of political intervention, support for military dictatorships, and CIA sponsored coups, the US and Latin America also share a general commitment to democracy, and deeply rooted economic ties. A meeting with Chávez—himself highly influential amongst Latin America's growing left coalition of governments—could be a key first step to reaffirming the US's commitment to a partnership with the region.
Finally, there is a fourth point that should appeal to Chávez's harshest critics. A bilateral meeting would be the most significant thing a US President could do to temper his power. Chávez, like his friend Fidel Castro before him, benefits from the specter of a hostile US. Rhetoric about US imperialism and interventionism appeals to Venezuelans' pride in their sovereignty, and unifies Chávez's base against a perceived enemy; it also distracts them from real problems in their country and political process. The Bush Administration's disgraceful complicity with the plot to overthrow Chávez's democratic government in 2002, and its subsequent funneling of money and political support to an isolated, fragmented opposition in Venezuela played right into Chávez's hands. If Obama demonstrated that the US government is not Venezuela's enemy, he would accomplish far more than the millions of dollars the Bush Administration has invested in destabilizing Venezuela's government. Venezuela, like all democracies, benefits from free and open public debate but the political process is derailed, civil society distracted by the threat—real or exaggerated—of US intervention. Obama has the political capital and the credibility to singlehandedly restore the world's faith in the goodwill of the US; Venezuela is a perfect place to start.
To be sure, an Obama offer to meet with Chávez, a twice-elected president widely portrayed in the US as undemocratic and anti-American, carries certain risks and the right-wing is bound to attack Obama for his efforts. But one of Obama's gifts as a politician is taking the high road, even in the face of counterparts who refuse to do the same; here, too, whether with Chávez's fiery rhetoric or the right-wing media's assault, he would surely come out on top. Moreover Chávez has already indicated a desire to work with Obama, issuing a congratulatory press release after the election, extraditing two Colombian drug traffickers to the US days later, and now continuing a generous charity program even as Venezuela suffers from the global economic slowdown. All are signs reminiscent of the Chávez of Mets games and stock market gavels: he wants to play ball. Conservatives may see Obama offering to meet with Chávez as a sign of weakness but it should be perceived as a sign of confidence and strength just as when President Nixon visited China in 1972, or when President Reagan met with Gorbachev in 1985 in the midst of the Cold War. In fact, numerous American politicians from both parties have met with Chávez over the years, often with tangible results; the Citgo charity program that last week Chávez announced he would continue, for example, emerged from meetings with Representative Delahunt (D-MA) and other congressmen.
Given Obama's pledge to sit down with leaders like Chávez, and the potential benefits, why not turn the campaign pledge into a concrete offer, and see how Chávez responds? A bilateral meeting could reopen the US embassy in Caracas, take a few more dollars off the price of oil, help the US to restore the global goodwill squandered over the last eight years, and transform a difficult adversary into a pragmatic partner.
Chesa Boudin, a Rhodes Scholar and student at the Yale Law School, worked as a foreign policy advisor to President Chávez in 2005 while researching for a degree in public policy in Latin America at Oxford University. In April Scribner is releasing his new book, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America.