Chavez and his neighbours

The apparently serious illness of President Hugo Chávez has taken observers by surprise, as it has, from all accounts, taken the President himself. In spite of his traditional physical robustness, few would take bets on the outcome of Chávez’s cancer treatment, though he would appear to be encouraged by indications of positive possibilities of treatment in Cuba, indications given as well from an invitation from President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, herself once a victim of the disease.

More immediately, however, concerns both within and outside of Venezuela are being expressed about the arrangements for the governance of Venezuela during the President’s treatment which is obviously intended to be for an extended time period, particularly in the light of a situation during his recent absence when the line of command seemed to be unclear. In addition, while some may not doubt his prospects for recovery, they still express some concern about whether the President will be up to the kind of electoral campaign necessary for the presidential election due in December of 2012.

In our region, some speculate about the prospects for the continuation of the PetroCaribe initiative, which along with the Alba agreement, has proven to be critical to the immediate solvency problems of many countries, in the context of the rise in oil prices over the last year, along with the recession in the United States and some European countries which are our traditional sources of foreign exchange from exports and tourism. Guyana, Jamaica, Belize, and some OECS countries are presently critically dependent on the PetroCaribe subsidy arrangements. Dominica in particular in the OECS, has been receiving substantial support for critical infrastructure projects, including the construction and preservation of roads in the difficult terrain of that mountainous territory. St Vincent has also seen itself as a significant OECS beneficiary, particularly in respect of its planned international airport. On the other hand, St Lucia though a signatory to the agreement, has, through governments of differing political stripes, taken a more cautious approach.  And Haiti, long pressured by the United States not to accede to the agreement, subsequently did so in 2007 under the Preval administration – to many, and in retrospect a significant decision for the country’s existence in the light of the hurricane disaster that has affected it.

The United States, indeed, having persistently opposed accession to the PetroCaribe-Alba initiatives on the ground that Venezuela under Chávez has been consistently hostile to American governments, has itself not been able to counter the argument that it has still found it in its own interest not to disrupt the extensive arrangements for accessing Venezuela’s oil that have existed over many years. For the US, in spite of certain initiatives that have been taken in respect of the Venezuelan oil distribution system in the American market, has deemed the imposition of sanctions and boycotts against Venezuela, such as those it has taken and advocated against the Iranians, to be not in its own interest.

The US has, in recent times been more concerned about the viability of the opposition to Chávez in Venezuela itself, as the President has, over the years, taken measures that seem to squeeze the space that the opposition has for action in the country. Yet the opposition has shown a certain resilience, to the extent that Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), still cannot be said to have a position of dominance in the politics of the country, even though its electoral position is underpinned by governmental manoeuvres. The fact is that with the economy not really showing activism outside of the oil sector, with inflation becoming rampant, with crime a critical public concern, and with much public complaint about the effectiveness of the public services, the President’s extensive social and economic support measures for the working classes and unemployed have still not been reflected in overwhelming political support for the PSUV and himself. Recent public opinion polls have given him about 50% support, not particularly expansive for a ‘populist’ president.

On the other hand, President Chávez’s diplomacy in respect of his hemispheric neighbours has had a certain success, which suggests that they would not necessarily wish to see his present position subordinated to prospects of domestic instability and uncertainty. The new regime in Colombia of President Santos, has shown a much more empathetic disposition to present-day Venezuela than that indicated by his predecessor, President Uribe. There presently exists a more relaxed diplomatic atmosphere between the two countries than the United States might perhaps favour. In addition, the eminence of President Lula of Brazil sprung from the working class, allied to the prestige gained for Brazil from its more recent economic growth and global characterization as one of the BRICS, has created a certain balance in South-Central America to Chávez’s self-propulsion as the guardian of popular interests in the hemisphere. And the cordial practical relationship now developing between Brazil and Guyana, surely gives this country a more substantial sense of autonomy among the neighbouring South American giants, an objective over the years of Guyanese diplomacy.

Public and journalistic comment has, of course, taken the opportunity of the President’s illness and its obvious seriousness, to speculate about the prospects for the Cuba-Venezuela relationship, of which Cuba is a substantial beneficiary (it is claimed that Venezuela’s net contribution to Cuba is of the order of US$3.5 billion per annum), allowing the leadership of that country some space to initiate a more measured economic policy of reversal and reconstruction than might have been permitted if the Venezuelan assistance were absent. For Cuba, Chávez’s commitment is strategic, in the sense that, having decided on the new line of economic policy including an opening to de facto assistance from the United States by way of increased remittances and more agricultural trade, Cuba will feel itself more at ease in dealing with US negotiators and legislators, given their knowledge that Chávez will be inclined to go almost beyond the call of duty in the event of pressure exerted from the US.

In that regard, Cuba’s attempt, over years and diverse circumstances, to retain a certain policy autonomy when seeking an opening of the economy even in the face of economic difficulty, has also been assisted by the willingness of both Brazil and Canada to disregard American strictures relating to investment in tourism and the search for oil and natural gas in Cuban waters. Venezuela’s strong presence under Chávez presents, as it were, a third hemispheric leg of support, which the Cuban government would certainly want to have endure.

In spite though, of the American penchant for being ever-present in the internal political affairs of countries that it considers significant in various regions (as recent Wikileaks leaks about Jamaican political affairs surely indicate), there must be a sense that even with a stricken Chávez, the political character of the Venezuelan populace will have changed somewhat, and that the internal impulses of the political system, along with the contemporary balance of forces that includes the military, will dominate in any succession battle, over the presence of external forces or influences. So we might hazard the guess that abrupt Venezuelan changes of policy in the hemisphere would therefore be unlikely, even as there may be a diminishing of assistance to Cuba, but not of the nature to entirely disrupt the functioning of that country’s economy.

In the Caribbean sphere, there would, in the face of a major change of regime, probably be a more strict accounting for assistance rendered, including the getting of commitments to more regular repayments of debt. But here too, we should probably be preparing – change of regime or not – for a more decisive role, probably for our Caribbean Development Bank, in the ordering of the commitments which we are making; and as a probable intermediary if circumstances should change against our interests.

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