The Bolivarian Revolution spawns new international alliances

Posted in Latin America | 18-May-07 | Author: Christian Rieck

Christian Rieck is WSN Editor Latin America.

„The Axis of Good“

Bolivarianism makes use of an integrationist and sovereignist discourse, following the ideas of Simón Bolívar, South America’s liberator. The central tenets of Bolivarianism are: (a) complete national sovereignty (self-determination of the people, political autonomy and economic autarky), (b) political and social participation of the masses through the use of elements of direct democracy (and the sidelining of intermediary and representative structures) and government schemes of redistribution of the “national wealth” (according to political criteria taking the form of clientelistic relations), (c) the mythical invocation of a “Volksgemeinschaft”, a unique bond between all members of this people (“el pueblo”) and the accordant “purification” of the system (by a fight against corruption, a thinking along the lines of “with-me-or-against-me”, a demonization of the “political class”), as well as (d) in the long term the unification of Latin America. Bolivarianism is therefore a modern variety of Populism.

Bolivarianism is at its core authoritarian, even if it is mass-democratically legitimated: a “democratic authoritarianism”, a “dictatorship by referendum”. This “return of the caudillo” is highly problematic since it means not only a democratic setback for the region. It also neatly fits into a global trend towards “populist quasi-democracies“ that is evidence of nothing less than of the weakness of the West. Today the West is no longer capable of imposing an enduring world order or even a definition of what that world order should be.

In the realm of foreign policy, his electoral victory means a consolidation of the current trends in revolutionary Venezuela: more petrodiplomacy, more meddling in national elections in the region in favor of leftist „revolutionary“ candidates, more political (and financial) favors for pro-Chávez governments, therefore more “revolution export”, more personalization and thus polarization within the country, in the region but also vis-à-vis the United States.

America’s critics are often Venezuela’s friends. The revolution’s standard bearer surrounds himself with an illustrious group of “friendly states”, most notably united in its rhetoric against the “Empire”. Even though the formal and personal connections with these different (and diverse) states are not all equally deep or fertile and even though Chávez’ influence beyond his own region should not be overestimated, the invocation of anti-American solidarity (even in the traditional American “backyard”) is more than mere muscle-flexing of a group of minor and disenfranchised states. It points to a multipolar readjustment of the global geometry of power – and thus to an enduring decline of the West as a power that can structure international relations and as a concept of ideas that the world aspires to. Chávez is even polemically and bluntly discrediting the OAS by insulting its Secretary-General (“Insulza is an idiot. A true idiot.”) so that no serious criticism will come from an organization outside of his political grasp.

Underdog diplomacy

In April 2007, together with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez has proposed the foundation of a gas cartel in the image of OPEC. Already in July 2006 he had officially traveled to a variety of “rogue states”, among them Belarus and Iran – an originally planned stop in North Korea had been postponed then. On his July journey he and Putin’s Russia had signed an important weapons deal. In August 2006 he was in Syria, spoke of the “fraternity” between Arabs and Latin Americans and together with Bashar al-Assad proclaimed a “new world, free from US control”. Already in October 2005 Chávez had met with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to blast the “North American Empire” for hunger, poverty and war in the world. With Bolivia and Cuba he created an “Axis of Good”. While George W. Bush was on a charm offensive in Latin America and lavished the region with newfound foreign policy interest in early 2007, Chávez toured the region accompanied by much media hype and used the stage his friends offered him to agitate against the “devil” in the North. His own aggressive anti-Americanism obviously serves Chávez as calling-card and door-opener with his old and new partners.

Even though Chávez’ 2006 bid to get Venezuela elected into the United Nations’ Security Council as a non-permanent member failed, his July journey has shown again that he is not afraid of aligning himself with anti-Western or anti-American regimes. Here, the classification as a “rogue state” provokes a level of cooperation between governments that would not have taken place without this unifying bracket. It is no coincidence that in all of these countries the condition of democracy has deteriorated, dramatically in some of them. For them this special form of “South-South cooperation” is an opportunity to feign international legitimacy and to further consolidate power within their borders without (Western) admonitions to the contrary.

Chávez’ forays onto the world stage, too, are controversial in the region. Not everyone shares his emphatic closeness to the self-proclaimed “underdogs”. At this point at least, Venezuela’s bonds with Iran, Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe are but partnerships of convenience, motivated by domestic considerations and without international repercussions or even a coherent agenda. Their common anti-Americanism and their highly personalized and authoritarian political leadership style cannot disguise the disparate and primarily regional agendas of those countries. They are too different, too opportunistic and also too proud to be able of creating a real “Axis of Good”.

On Ahmadinejad’s first trip to Venezuela both heads of state, in a revolutionary spirit, signed 29 cooperation agreements, mostly in the areas of the economy and energy. Planned are the creation of shared companies for oil, cement, airplanes, bicycles, automobiles and gunpowder. A bilateral two-billion-dollar-fund will be established as well. This is more than mere rhetoric, even though their qualification as means of „technology transfer“ must not misunderstood as a transfer of vital or even high technology.

Yet, this is not a “global revolutionary project” of truly international attraction. These countries are no spearhead for a “new non-aligned movement”. „Multipolarity“ and „Thirdworldism“ are code words in this context, calling George W. Bush and the United States “Satan” and “devil” are pure rhetoric. Hugo Chávez lacks the legitimacy, power and resources to implement his global ambitions, or to reshape the world order.


The rhetorical fire against the “enemy” United States serves the permanent domestic mobilization and shall give a sense of self-respect to the masses: if they cannot participate in the promise of globalization, they can at least unite behind its (and its leading power’s) passionate rejection. Never again shall Latin America be dominated by foreign powers, too painful is the long decline in terms of national wealth, security, stability and democracy since the 1950s – especially in Venezuela. All too easily, an alleged “neoliberalism” of the United States has been made responsible for this decline, one that only saw its own profit and allowed the potentially rich resource supplier to fall into poverty. The United States’ support for right-wing military dictatorships in the region in the 1970s has only intensified this impression. That is why the violation of Venezuela’s “national pride” by the “Empire” is conjured, an evident suppression of its own greatness and of its prosperity. In this context Chávez talks about a jealously guarded “absolute sovereignty” – and Ahmadinejad, for instance, about a “natural right to nuclear energy”.

The autarchy discourse in Venezuela suggests a new way beyond the „neoliberalism“ of the 1990s – but is nothing else than a sentimental reminiscence of (real or imagined) “golden times”. The commitment to social values serves the moral ammunition of the “revolution”. The commitment to a radical egalitarianism of all persons, the alliance between leader and lower classes is the Chávez’ currency of legitimacy. He can paint himself as an underdog of “the system”. Ideologically, Venezuela uses the rhetoric of salvation and damnation but is free from any religious agenda. It is highly critical of the Catholic church, which is regarded as a potential opposition. The church no longer has the ear of the government, not even in the debate of aims and instruments of social policy. Chávez is no prophet of the Apocalypse aching for the final confrontation with the “Empire”. His anti-Americanism is machismo.

Latin American Integration

The unification of Latin America in the tradtition of Simón Bolívar promises freedom from the perceived oppression by the North. Venezuela under Chávez is integrationist, i.e. the creation of a regional bloc against the “neoliberal superpower” is supposed to create self-esteem und to demonstrate strength. Rhetorically and symbolically they march “united against the United States”. This is a popular topic in all of Latin America, one that guarantees cheap applause. The integrationist philosophy and the social profile of Bolivarianism want to stabilize, develop and unite the neighborhood. They strive to establish a Venezuelan “opinion leadership”, however, not a Venezuelan dominance. Venezuela does not aspire to a “regional superpower status”, Bolivarianism is motivated primarily by domestic considerations.

Even though the cooperation in the areas of energy, trade, debt and finance has been warmly welcomed in the region, there is also a growing rejection of Venezuela’s “meddling in internal affairs” of its neighbors. Chávez’ vocal preference and financial support for leftist “revolutionary” candidates has time and again provoked criticism from Latin America. Part of his “revolution export” is the polarization of societies. Even Venezuela’s petrodiplomacy has its limitations and not everywhere have Chávez’s friends succeeded, but this form of interference clearly marks a considerable ideological burden for the region that holds the danger of a further erosion of democratic standards.

Under Chávez too, however, Venezuela has remained a rational actor. Despite all the socialist rhetoric, the country has not fundamentally broken away from capitalism and competition. The intermediary institutions have been severely weakened but have not been forbidden, the president needs them as a potential opposition, as a democratic fig leaf. He needs the semblance of democracy. In matters of foreign policy, Venezuela oscillates between rhetorical confrontation and pragmatic cooperation. Chávez still needs allies in the region, not everything can his petrodollars buy, not everywhere has he real influence. Chávez is no troublemaker with a military option. The stability of the supply lines and the export markets are still of primary concern to Venezuela. It is the oil rents (primarily from the United States) that allow Chávez to fund his social policies in the first place. So Venezuela remains a potentially deterrable actor.

The author is Editor Latin America for the World Security Network (WSN) and a project assistant at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) in Berlin, a German political foundation, where he is also a member of the Latin American section of the Working Group on Foreign Policy. This paper states his personal opinion.