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February 2014

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Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era
Review by Joe B. Johnson

coverLatin America in the Post-Chavez Era: the Security Threat to the United States by Luis Fleischman, Potomac Books, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1-61234-601-4, E-Book ISBN 798-1-61234-602-1, pp. 277, $29.95 (Hardcover), $16 (Kindle Edition)

After the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last March, can we stop worrying about the spread of his Bolivarian regime and anti-American alliances throughout Latin America?  In a new book, conservative scholar Luis Fleischman asserts, “No way.”  But Fleischman’s balanced presentation leads me to a different conclusion.  The regime is still intact, but “Twenty-first Century Socialism” is already over.

Fleischman, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University Honors College, also edits The Americas Report, a blog on hemispheric security sponsored by the conservative Center for Security Policy.  You can sample his analysis of this same issue on the blog.

Read this book if you want a detailed account of the Chavez regime’s involvement with other leftist leaders in the region, and with narcotics traffickers, Iran and Hezbollah.  Fleischman provides balanced information and he labels clearly his opinions.  This book is on the right, but it’s not partisan.  Fleischman quotes experts from all sides.  The Forward is by Michael Skol, Ambassador to Venezuela during the first years of the Clinton Administration.

Skol asks: “If Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution do not constitute an enemy that needs to be countered, who would?”

Fleischman makes that case in 150 pages, describing how Chavez built Bolivarian political and ideological alliances with the leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba and influenced leftist social and political movements throughout Latin America using wealth from petroleum exports.  Chavez also supported the Colombian rebel organization FARC, allowed increasing flows of narcotics from Andean producers through Venezuela, and established troubling links with Hezbollah and the Government of Iran.  He encouraged deeper relations with China and Russia.

Chavez met no effective resistance from the U.S. and its allies.  Fleischman analyzes the passive stance of the Organization of American States (OAS) and other regional actors, especially the United States, all based on optimistic assumptions about Bolivarian intentions and capabilities.  The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations adopted different strategies but none that was forceful or effective.  Even today Venezuela remains the United States’ fourth biggest source of imported crude oil.

Now that Chavez is gone, Fleischman asserts, “The United States needs to use its leadership and influence on the OAS so that this organization applies public pressure on countries that violate civil liberties, democracy and human rights” and to try to restore “democracy and constitutionalism” to Venezuela.

Fleischman strongly believes that absent energetic economic and diplomatic measures, Chavez’ political heirs will continue his march toward totalitarian government and hemispheric subversion.

Unfortunately, the picture is very mixed nearly a year after Chavez passed the baton to his right-hand man, Nicolas Maduro.  Maduro, a former labor leader, was re-elected, and late in the year his party prevailed in municipal elections by 6 percent.  In the Presidential poll, opposition leader Henrique Capriles trailed Maduro by only 2 percent.  The Chavista Party grossly manipulated both elections.

But inflation stands at 50 percent and the people suffer rationing of staple products, frequent power cuts and record levels of violent crime.  With no plan for economic growth, Maduro – who completely lacks his mentor’s charisma – has his hands full merely clinging to power.

Of course, Caracas’ foreign policy is more hostile than ever.  The regime expelled U.S. Charge d’Affaires Kelly Keiderling and other U.S. diplomats last year.

But it’s not the same without Hugo Chavez.  After his death, Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society in New York, told Reuters: "Chavez gave momentum, voice and leadership to the movement, but his leadership concealed the differences among all the leaders."  Sabatini added that Chavez’ “fiery, charismatic voice and symbol of that era — and that's what it was — has vanished.”

At year’s end, The Guardian’s former Caracas correspondent, Rory Carroll (who authored a well-reviewed biography titled Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela), wrote this judgment on Politico.

Mismanagement and reckless populism left Venezuela a basket case of inflation, shortages, violent crime, lawlessness and economic distortion. You can fill an SUV tank in Venezuela for under $1, but a Big Mac sets you back $20. The “21st-century socialism” [Chavez] hoped to export is rejected even by allies in Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua.”

By maybe there’s another reason to worry.  Given the beachheads that narco-traffickers, Hezbollah and Iran established in Venezuela during the Chavez years, greater political turmoil and economic hardship in a formerly prosperous hemispheric nation leaves them a lot of room for mischief.white star
                                                                                      

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imageJoe B. Johnson is an instructor at the Foreign Service Institute and a public affairs consultant to nonprofits in the Washington area.  He served in four nations of Latin America during his Foreign Service career, and as deputy director of the Office of Public Diplomacy in the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau.

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