Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela has appointed an army figure with ties to FARC weapons deals as Defense Minister and allowed the buildup of FARC camps in Venezuelan territory. Why does Chavez make such extreme provocations?The level of antagonism this generates with Colombia causes huge problems for Venezuela’s economy and undeniably has a net negative impact on Venezuelan security, due to the ramped-up Colombia and American military presence. What is the motive? While it is easy to dismiss Chavez as irrational, such allegations are difficult to prove. Here’s a reasonably well-informed attempt at explaining how his support for FARC is part of a larger grand strategy.
With the impact on bilateral trade nixing liberal theory as an explanatory force and the deterioration of Venezuela’s security environment making realist theory less appealing, constructivist theory does the best job showing what Venezuela has to gain in the international system by portraying itself as being an extreme, daring nation opposed to the United States and Colombia. Constructivism argues that states do not exist in vacuums with predetermined interests; instead, they construct roles that define their international interactions. Venezuela currently tries to construct itself as a radical leader of the Latin American left, the key to understanding the support for FARC.
A major thrust of Chávez’s foreign policy is the Caracas-based Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an eight-year old leftist regional body. Although the bloc was formed in an agreement between Cuba and Venezuela, there is no question that Venezuela has complete ownership. In an official ALBA document summarizing its philosophy, the text begins with Hugo Chávez claiming to paraphrase Jesus Christ, saying that “The only way to Peace, is Justice; the brotherhood, the equality.” The document ends by saying that “Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias…provides a true option of development and a luminous way to the future of Latin America and the Caribbean.”
The body was previously named the “Bolivarian Alternative.” Venezuela cannot be the alternative to the “American devil” – and Colombia – if they shared cordial diplomatic ties. Nicaragua has a territorial dispute against Colombia on current file. Ecuador released an arrest warrant for then Defense Minister (now President) Santos after an attack on FARC bases in Ecuadorian territory. Cuba has never taken kindly to American military allies. Venezuela’s polarizing stance has also gained it disproportionate attention from a number of other major players, notably China, Iran, and Russia. If Venezuela pursued benign relations with Colombia, it would find it much harder to be the leader of ALBA and to court the favor of powerful nations opposed to US interest. By taking a brash stance, Venezuela has, in a decade, constructed itself a redux of Fidel’s Cuba, a socialist firebrand unafraid to stand up to the United States – and with this has secured a network of regional and global subordinates and allies.
Using the same line of thinking, Venezuela’s history and Hugo Chávez’s personality further amplify the trend. In the past, Venezuela was a vastly more geopolitically potent than it is today. Venezuela was the first of Spain’s colonies to declare independence. It was the focal point of the defining diplomatic crisis of the turn of the 20th century, where it gained territory from British Guyana. Following the discovery of oil in the 1920s, it became the world’s largest petroleum exporter, and, by 1955, excluding the tiny rich Gulf States, the fourth-wealthiest per capita nation in the world, trailing only Switzerland and the United States. No more. Chávez seems obsessed with Venezuela’s past and its iconic independence hero Simon Bolivar. Chávez renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, refers to his political agenda as “the Bolivarian Revolution,” and even exhumed Bolivar’s body in order to test him for poisoning.
Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack hypothesize in their famous article “Let Us Now Praise Great Men” that states led by leaders with grandiose visions are more likely to engage in risky behavior destabilizing behavior. With his unscripted monologues (frequently lasting up to seven hours) on his Sunday morning television show “Alo Presidente” as evidence, the self-obsessive Chávez fits the bill perfectly. Venezuela once was at the forefront of Latin American politics and development, and with this dream in his head, Chávez has sought to launch himself, the new Bolivar, to the forefront of global affairs. His extreme foreign policy, particularly providing support to the FARC does just that.
Michael Lopesciolo is a section editor for the Law and Ethics section of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and a junior in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.