The late Hugo Chavez has casted a long shadow over Latin American politics for the past 15 years. The Comandante had a vision of fraternity and independence for the region, which he called “the Bolivarian dream”. Chavez often talked of a unified Latin America, under the banners of the political left, fighting off imperialism and interventionism. He fashioned himself as the new Simon Bolivar, destined to bring together the peoples of the Americas under one roof. Guided by Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s aim was to become the regional champion for the oppressed Latin American people. Nevertheless, the recent fall of the Kirchner dynasty in Argentina – one of the Chavistas strongest allies— coupled with mounting internal pressures in Venezuela, signal the end of Venezuela’s misadventures in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ sub-par successor, isn’t likely to let go without a fight.
Chavez’ Bolivarian dream –an allusion to the independence leader that freed vast swaths of South America from Spanish subjugation— is completely abstract from the realities of Venezuelan foreign policy. Venezuela under Chavez and Maduro has been notoriously interventionist and destabilizing for the region. Armed with barrels of oil (Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world), and a loudmouth, chest-pounding leader, Venezuela set forth to impose its views in the region. In a scheme known as PetroCaribe, Venezuela provided subsidized fuel to energy starved Caribbean and Central American nations in exchange for political support. Furthermore, Venezuela uses its petro-dollars to influence election results across the region, the most notorious incident of which was the Antonini Wilson Case.
Antonini Wilson was a Venezuelan- American citizen that was caught trying to enter Argentina with a briefcase containing close to 1 million USD in cash. It was reported that the money was to be used for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s war chest during the 2007 Argentinian presidential election and there is wide spread belief that Venezuela was the origin of the money. This year alone, Venezuela has sparked border conflicts with Colombia and Guyana, and it has been accused of actively supporting the FARC insurgency in Colombia. Finally, the Chavista regime seems to hold deep ties with drug trafficking organizations. Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the legislative body, has been accused of colluding with drug smugglers and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently indicted the first lady’s nephews for drug trafficking charges, after their arrest in Haiti.
Despite a wave of left-leaning policies and leaders in Latin America taking the reins of government in the past decade, Chavez strand of socialism never caught on beyond his own borders. Leftist leaders, who held sympathetic views of Chavez, like Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia, have taken a more pragmatic approach to policy, coupling steady economic growth and enhanced trade with social policies meant to tackle inequality. In foreign policy, South American nations have taken concerted, albeit at times flawed, approaches to regional matters, but only through truly multilateral fora like UNASUR and not through the Venezuelan dominated ALBA. Finally, the Chavista regime’s strongest ally, Argentina, is now under the rule of Mauricio Macri. Macri wasted no time in denouncing Maduro as a human rights violator and the Chavista regime as verging on the despotic.
The isolation of Venezuela in the region doesn’t seem to weaken Maduro’s resolute to carry out the Bolivarian dream. The dignitary recently affirmed his position to stand behind PetroCaribe, despite his cash strapped economy and the low price of oil.
An increasingly despotic Venezuelan regime is damning for region. Maduro faces legislative elections on December 6th, which polls indicate will result in a mayor opposition victory. Maduro has rebuffed UNASUR’s calls for strong electoral monitoring, which led to Brazil’s announcement that it would not join the mission, after failing to negotiate adequate conditions and having its proposal for chief of mission turned down. The lead up to election date has been marred by violence and repression of opposition candidates. Internal strife is destabilizing for the region, which, as previously noted, already sparked conflicts in the Colombia and Guyana borders. Furthermore, Venezuela’s ambiguous stand on drug trafficking empowers smugglers across the region, from cocaine growers in Colombia and Peru, to cartels and gangs in Central America and the Caribbean.
Chavez’s overly romantic rhetoric might inspire hipster millennials wearing Che Guevara T-Shirts in Brooklyn, but it has done nothing for the benefit of Latin Americans. The Bolivarian dream is dead, and the nightmare that might follow is cause for concern.
Christian Medina-Ramirez is a consultant and a free-lance writer based out of Bogotá, Colombia. He holds an MA in conflict from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) and a BA (Hons.) in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Canada). His areas of expertise include the intersections between natural resources, armed conflict (specially insurgencies), criminal/terrorist networks and development. His regional focus is on Latin America and the Asia-Pacific.