Prof Talk: Paul Dosh, Poli. Sci., on the US and Latin America

By Hazel Schaeffer

The Mac Weekly: On September 10, 2008, Bolivian president Evo Morales declared the U.S. ambassador unwanted, persona non grata. The next day Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez expelled U.S. ambassador Patrick Duddy. What are the implications of these actions for the U.S. and Latin America? What could Morales and Chávez hope to gain from this?Professor Paul Dosh: Your question asks about both Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez. To answer any question that has both of them in it we need to have a clear understanding of just how different these two leaders are. I often describe Hugo Chávez as the most democratically legitimated in Latin America who is not a democrat. Since 1988 again and again he has been validated through free and fair democratic elections. But Hugo Chávez’s commitment to democratic institutions and to power sharing is incredibly weak, and in my view, incidental. We got the first clue of this in 1992 when he attempted to take power through a coup d’état. Democratic means have been working well for him but we see all sorts of signs that he’s no a committed democrat. Evo Morales has worked his way up through Bolivia’s democratic structures . has run for offices, [and] been willing to win and lose. Once in office [he has] shown a remarkable commitment to democratic institutions, and to trying to build democratic institutions that will endure. I think most people in the U.S. think of them as nearly identical twins.

So back to your question. let’s talk first about Morales kicking out the U.S. ambassador, but notably not cutting off diplomatic relations with the U.S. Since Morales’s election in 2005, the U.S. government has been pretty brazenly channeling millions of dollars into right-wing groups that publicly oppose Morales. So I think Morales has shown remarkable restraint. The U.S. opened an office called the Office of Transition Initiatives, whose purpose is to eliminate the Morales government. The amount of funds that are being channeled… is proportionally the equivalent of putting $100 billion dollars into the U.S. economy. My friend in Washington says, “Well, Paul, but they’re channeling it into building civil society organizations, and to strengthen prefect level government. What could be wrong with that?” That’s what I just read in my inbox! What’s wrong with that is that prefect level government is a code word for violent right-wing extremists in the eastern province who want to either overthrow Morales violent or secede violently. In Bolivia funding civil societies means funding right-wing extremists. So to me, Morales was not only justified but long overdue. Morales has been in a great deal of pressure- I was just in Bolivia in 2007- to act much sooner and more strongly then he did by his own [left] base.

Hugo Chávez is sort of following suit, I don’t know if that is really so significant actually. George Bush and Hugo Chávez like to trade high profile antics with each other every few years. Other things going on signal a lot more: the fourth fleet being reactivated in the Caribbean of the U.S.’ navy, Russia’s military relationship with Venezuela, these things are much more significant than the kind of headline grabbing stunts that both the White House and Washington and Hugo Chávez seem to love.

TMW: How does the expanding influence of Russia and China play into the U.S.-Latin America dynamic?

PD: It is a pretty important part of the dynamic. The broader context is that since the attacks of September 11, 2001 Washington D.C. has largely ignored Latin America. The Bush foreign policy team, aside from having a disaster and criminal foreign policy, has had a myopic foreign policy that has been exclusively focused on their favorite conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and also the crisis of the day. The Bush administration began its first term with. plans to focus on Latin America that just fell through the wayside. I think what you’ve been seeing with respect to Russia and China flexing their muscles is not just about what is happening globally. It is also the fact that the U.S.. has not played the really active and often negative role that they have played in the previous decades. So there is a gap to fill- not that it should be filled. I am not a fan of Russian or Chinese or United States influence in Latin America. I like Danish [influence]-there are some powerful countries that I think have very positive effects.

MW: How can the Monroe Doctrine be interpreted in light of all of this? How should the U. S react to the assertions of Russia and China in Latin America?

PD: I am not respectful on the Monroe Doctrine. I think it is an arrogant policy. It certainly does shape U.S. policy toward Latin America, and it has for all my life and for much longer. It is particularly hypocritical and absurd given how quickly the U.S. has jumped into Georgia.. The U.S. acts like the entire planet is its backyard. The U.S. is just not used to any country besides Cuba being capable of. forging relations with the countries it wants .as we are seeing Venezuela now do.

Hugo Chávez justified the expulsion, stating that U.S. officials were behind a potential coup d’état. Do you think Chávez is using this and other conspiracy theories in attempt to rally support for a threatened administration?

In 2002 Hugo Chávez was ousted in a coup d’état. To my knowledge the only countries that recognized the Pedro Carmona government that took power were the U.S. and Israel. It was widely condemned across the Americas. .Pedro Carmona was reported to being having breakfast with the U.S ambassador the morning of the coup. There was very clear complicity on the part of the U.S. Going back to that pattern we discussed of money going through [U. S. organizations like] the Office of Transition Initiatives, the same pattern happened in 2001 leading up to the 2002 coup: tons of money being poured into civil society groups, whose successful purpose was to overthrow Hugo Chávez. So given this track record, it does not seem unreasonable for Hugo Chávez to be worried. It’s pretty clearly the policy of the U. S. government to try and get rid of Hugo Chávez.

TMW: Do you think the United States’ relationship with Latin American is deteriorating?

PD: Oh absolutely. I think that it is deteriorated. The damage that has been done by the Bush administration to countries around the world is particularly evident in Latin America. There was a real out pouring of support for the U.S. on September 12 and September 13 of 2001, and it lasted until the first bombs fell on Afghanistan in December of 2001, and then it just vanished. Latin Americans know the history of the U.S. and many could not have told you where Afghanistan is on a map, but they knew [the bombing] was wrong. Opinions just turned so sharply against the U.S. Popular opinion outside of the executive branches in Latin American countries swiftly turned against it. I am optimistic that when Barrack Obama is president, he has the capacity to rebuild this relationship. I haven’t exactly been encouraged by Obama’s campaign that he has much interest or knowledge about Latin America, but frankly the world will be so relieved to have George Bush out of office, that there’s going to be olive branches being extended to Obama.

TMW: And what if McCain is elected president?

PD: That’s not going to happen [laughs]. Then I think the deterioration would continue. Leadership matters a lot. I think it is very safe to say that Latin America has been neglected. By that statement I don’t mean to say that I think U.S. neglect of Latin America is a bad thing. My sense as a Latin American political expert is that the net aggregate effect is usually negative, meaning that when the U. S. completely neglects Latin America, that may be a positive thing.

TMW: How important is Venezuela’s oil to the U.S?

PD: I think the primary way I see Venezuelan oil affecting the U.S. is not through the export of oil to the U.S. but through the financial support of the Chávez administration. Vene
zuelan oil has provided this incredible potent platform for Hugo Chávez . It is absolutely a petroleum-based regime. People tend to agree on the point that oil has allowed Chávez to do what he has done since 1998 when he was elected.

TMW:According to “The Economist”, over 90 percent of Venezuela’s export revenues are dependent on its oil, of which the U.S. buys $40 billion. Do you think that Venezuela’s actions will cause U.S. oil importers to look elsewhere?

PD: I often refer to Chávez and Bush as respective antics toward each other. Because despite all the fireworks that we see [laughs], the economic relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela seems almost unchanged. So that’s a strong indication to me [that the economic relationship] is really important to both partners. It’s not at all clear to me that Venezuela could not find ample costumers for 100 percent of its oil.. China and India are proving very voracious consumers. That said, my sense is that neither Chávez nor Bush feels that they are jeopardizing the relationship. They both benefit from these antics.

TMW: What do you make of mobilization of the U.S.’s Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean as a response to Venezuela’s ties with Russia?

PD: I always think about is the U.S. November election. One thing that would really help the Republican ticket would be a violent conflict in Iran or Latin America. Speaking as a cynical political scientist, this would be a great thing for the Republican Party. But Chávez is clearly serious about leading Latin America in breaking the Monroe Doctrine, breaking with being in the U.S.’s backyard. He wants to do it on economic policy and he wants to do it in military policy as well. That scars me; militarization is one thing Latin America does not need, not from anybody.

TMW: Why do you think that the expulsion did not receive more media coverage than it did?

PD: Possibly because of the election here which our country seems to have a fresh and endless appetite for, much to the delight of political scientists across the land. Latin America does not get that much attention. What has been happening in Bolivia, which is tremendously serious, has been swept into the same group as thoughts about Venezuela. In “The Wall Street Journal” world it’s almost not news what is happening in Bolivia. “The Wall Street Journal” opinion page is pretty awful on Latin America. What they say is pretty misleading, and I think a disservice for people whose primary source of information is mainstream news media.

TMW: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

PD: I already mentioned this juxtaposition that Chávez is democratically legitimated, but not a democrat. Another juxtaposition is that at least up until now, on the whole, Chávez has been bad for Venezuela, and on the whole been really good for Latin America. I think he’s bad for Venezuela because his centralization of power is going to last for decades beyond him. Latin America does not need more powerful presidents; they need power sharing.

But on the broader scale, Chávez being so wild, leftist, extremist, has opened up space for leaders across the region, both in the executive and the legislative level. Center-leftists and leftists seem so much more moderate compared to Chávez. His really extreme regime has opened up, for what I see, signs of hope in Latin America. But I am pretty concerned about Latin America.