“Hugo Chavez: The Next Castro?”

March 28, 2007

Venezuela’s Hugo Castro with Cuba’s Fidel Castro

Since our class is now moving into discussions of Marxist IR theory, we thought it would be interesting to examine the “socialist” credentials of one of Latin America’s most controversial leaders, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

What are his motivations? (“What Kind of Leader is Chavez?”, BBC News, 1 December 2006). Is he, as Ibsen Martinez asks, “the next Castro”? (Ibsen Martinez, “Hugo Chavez: the Next Castro?”, Washington Post.com, 6 August 2006)

Much of Chavez’s popularity in Venezuela comes from the poor working class, and his anti-US sentiment is well known. After winning the last election, Chavez promised to nationalize telecommunication and electricity industries, and acquire controlling stakes in the oil projects (“With Marx, Lenin and Jesus Christ,” The Economist, 11 January 2007), triggering fears that Venezuela is turning into a socialist country. This reminds us, at least, of what Castro did in Cuba when he took over the power in 1959, as there is a heavy presence of US interest in Venezuela, especially oil industry. It seems Chavez wants to use oil as the leverage to counter United States’ influence in that region.

Support of Chavez has been increasing in South and Latin America, and this depicts the scene of its political “left turning”, together with the election of leftist presidents like Evo Morales (Bolivia), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) came into power since 2005, and how can we forget Fidel Castro? As Chavez was given a new mandate by the voters last year, and possibly seeking rewriting the constitution to give him another run for presidency in 2012, we can see Chavez’s rhetoric against United States could only get louder and stronger.

But when we combine Chavez’s policy and his stance towards United States, we see a very interesting “love-hate” relationship between the two countries: Venezuela has been an important oil supplier for United States (11% of US’ crude oil imports come from Venezuela) and much of Chavez’s popular programs were funded by the oil money, and Chavez was much benefited by the rise of oil’s prices (more than six fold) (see “Venezuela’s Oil-Based Economy,” Council for Foreign Relations, 27 November 2006; “Glimpsing the Bottom of the Barrel, ” The Economist, 1 February 2007). Chavez can’t afford a crash of oil market since it may mean his spending binge could mean the collapse of Venezuela’s economy.

Chavez’s populist program sees the MNCs (oil companies in particular) as exploiting Venezuelans, but is his anti-US stance and building an “anti-US coalition” in Latin America a projection of Marxist economic views? Or is he just promoting nationalistic sentiment? Chavez claims his programs of “21st century socialism” are not Marxist (Red Pepper’s Venezuela Blog, “Just what is 21st-Century Socialism?”), but if not, what are they?

Any opinions?

Alex and Helen


11 Responses to ““Hugo Chavez: The Next Castro?””

  1. Philip Poon Says:

    To me, this issue falls back on the discussion by the scholars as to the importance and the problems of putting individuals under the micro lens of political analysis. For some, like Byman and Pollack, they wanted to praise great men (as in their article of “Let Us Now Praise Great Men”), and though Waltz also agreed on the need to study the impact of individuals as the 3rd image of his levels of analysis, we still face the problem of obtaining sufficient facts, and finding out what really is in the mind of these emotional individuals, before we can formulate a view on such “indivuduals”.
    As far as I am concerned, I can’t say for sure if Chavez is, or will become, a Marxist. Firstly, there’s a problem of definition between Marxisit, socialist and 21st Century socialist as claimed by Chavez in one of the suggested articles. I think the chance probably is that even Chavez does not know!
    He capitalized on the underlying anti-US sentiment of Venezuelas and probably also those Latin Americans, (probably this can be explained by the core periphery or dependency theory) and also benefited by the high oil price in the recent years that helped pushing the economy of Venezuela. With the economic boom, it is easy to command support of his people and portrays himself as his country’s hero.
    The chance is that Chavez would not embark on any particular IR theory but would just choose to do what he thinks is most beneficial to him and to his country as he would perceive in the course of his presidency.

  2. G. Daniel Says:

    To expand on Philip comment.

    We should not mistake discourse or political rhetoric with
    actual policies

    Philip hints that Chavez’s policies might actually be realist in nature but Chavez’s definition of national interest is clearly influenced by the sense of social justice that underlines Marxism.

    Therefore I believe that Chavez might be practicing Socialism the French way rather than a purely ideologically based policy. This would put him in the camp of the mature leader who are careful not to mistake ideological motivation with practical application.

    This also brings us back to the whole question of which theory is best to understand IR. I think Chavez is a perfect example that realism tends to be a good tool to understand behaviours in the Ir arena while Liberalism is a good tool to look at the dynamic of the whole system. I would also guess that Constructism is helpful to understand the negotiation process between actors as well as how the two dynamics interact with each other.

  3. Philip Poon Says:

    Hi Daniel
    With all respect to you, I really don’t know what’s Socialism in the French way!

  4. Jessica Says:

    Philip says, “The chance is that Chavez would not embark on any particular IR theory but would just choose to do what he thinks is most beneficial to him and to his country…”

    Yes, I certainly agree with this. However, I also agree with the comment made in class that Chavez had previously acted (I stress the past tense) in a very Marxist way by taking potshots at the 800 pound gorilla in global politics, the United States. Frankly, I think one of the most brilliant political moves in the last few years was Chavez’s “Heating Oil for the poor” program in the Bronx, New York City, New York. Chavez became my hero after this stunt as I think it really highlights US hypocrisy on many issues.

    He used to be rather clever on how he picked on the 800 pound gorilla and I feel he did it in a rather Marxist way. Now, based on his most recent actions, particularly those in regards to the press, he looks like he is heading towards being a Megalomaniac. And, back to Philip’s original point, I do not believe that megalomania is one of the schools of IR thought. 🙂

  5. wooi yee Says:

    Most of the Venezuelans feel that they have long been oppressed by those American oil companies. Thus Hugo Chavez has adopted an anti-US foreign policy to win the supports from his people. Of course, his political strategy has proved to be a successful one.

    Is he a Maxist? I’m not sure. But, he seemed to represent those oppressed Venezuelans & Latin America countries, fighting against the oppressor- the US. From this simple assumption, I think the answer should be “yes”.

  6. G. Daniel Says:

    To answer Philip, When I mentioned ‘Socialism the French Way’ it is in reference to the fact that the principles of French policies at home are very often heavily influenced by socialist ideas but the implementation is usually well in line with capitalist practice and economic model. In short it is the mix between socialist goal and capitalist management.

  7. Philip Poon Says:

    Thank you Daniel!

  8. Carole Chen Says:

    To me, socialism is not pure Marxism but a combination of Realism, Loberalism and Marxism, maybe even incluing Constructivism. However, Socialism adopt the Marxism’s concern on economy.

    The exploitation of capitalsm is explained by ‘surplus value’ in socialism. Employers are creating value and they are paid, but the payment is less than the value they have created. Then the margin between the payment and the reated value is named ‘surplus value’. The ‘surplus value’ is gained by the capitalists, namely, the employers are exploited by the employees. The only way, the socialists promoted, to solve this problem is establishing state-owned companies, as in socilist countries the state is representing the people.

    Chavez may using this concept and the anti-US motion of the people to win support, for most of his people have been feeling oppress from the American oil companies (is it a feeling of exploitation?).

    However, when think of the ‘love-hate’ relation between Venezuela and the US, is Chavez’s ‘nation-based oil company’ feasible? When the Venezuelians cool down on this issue, will they consider Chavez’s proposal is something needs a second-thought?

  9. vanchui Says:

    Given that Venezuela is in possession of abundent oil resources and it accounts for 11% of crude oil exports to US, it would be a good idea from both political and strategic point of views for Venezuela to make its country wealthy by exporting crude oil to those countries that are deficient or in shortage of supply of crude oil.

    To me, I think this phenomena can be explained from he perspective of realism in the sense that Venezuela can gain power by controlling the supply of crude oil to other countries (including the USA) and also the price of crude oil in international market. By so doing, Venezuela also gain political bargaining power in international stage such as in terms of economic, social welfare, terms of trade transaction and the like.

    It is insufficient to discern whether Chavez is a Marxist, socialist or 21st Century since our class is just studying the concept of Marxism. Obviously, Chavez is likely to continue doing anything for the best of himself (in gaining support from citizen) and for the sake of his country (in gaining power and wealth), even though all the things he does are regarded as anti-US.

  10. Carole Chen Says:

    I agree with the idea that Chavez is quite realistic in taking such a strategy although he named himself 21st century socialist.

    However, no matter Chavez is working for the interests of the country or for his own prestige, may I say he has gone to far to declare that the oil companies should be state-owned? Is he sure that his country has the ability to run the companies as well as the foreigh companies did so that could really benefit the sitizens?

    On the other hand, the Venazuelians consider themselves are being exploited by the capitalists currently but they still earn their lives from the MNCs. When the companies become state-owned and they earn less than before, will they still support Chavez’s policy? Can the anti-US emotion make them live a wealthy live?

  11. Shermann Says:

    If the US is working under the liberal beliefs to go against Chavez, it may go into the trap described by Michael Doyle as “imprudent vehemence” to deny the legitimacy of the nonliberal state to pursue political independence. Limiting the contact with Venezuela to oil only will be destabilizing as one single issue will determine the whole relationship. According to Doyle, increase of trade with Venezuela under liberal principles is the solution to avoid conflict escalation.

    Although Roger Noriega asserted in the article suggested by Alex and Helen that US rejection of Chavez was based on Venezuelan nonliberal practices, I incline to agree that the realist practices were followed by the US. Chavez is widely supported by grassroots in Venezuela and many in Latin America. The social divide mentioned by the US has been in place since 1980s well before Chavez took office. The political oppression of the regime is not likely to be unique to Venezuela. Other oil suppliers of the US like Saudi Arabia are accused of similar practice.

    If the US is adopting a realist strategy, US hostilities against Chavez were to protect its interests (mainly related to oil) and its relative power in the country when Chavez took on the semi-autonomous state-owned oil company, PDVSA. In particular, Chavez’s strategy to diversify its clientele (e.g. to supply China with oil) makes the US uncomfortable.

    Although I would classify Chavez’s policies in the country as socialist, I don’t think he is a Marxist from my limited knowledge on this school of thought (I hope this situation would be changed after the coming lectures). In fact, companies from capitalist countries are still allowed to go into Venezuela for some sensitive businesses like gold mining after meeting some conditions to help local communities (see http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news.php?newsno=2255). The change of Chavez from a moderate position to a strong stance against the US is likely to be a reaction towards the preceived US rejection of his government. For example, though the US might not be directly behind the coup attempt, the US was alleged to know the coup in advance but not to inform Chavez’s government. Gaining more support in the country and in Latin America will enhance Chavez’s chance of survival.

    Unlike Castro, Chavez has the oil money to finance his social experiment without reliance on external support. His “aid” to US poor is also a very innovative way to stand against the Bush Administration. At the same time, the US has very few options to handle him because of its reliance on oil supply from Venezuela. I would expect that the current war of words will continue until there is a change in the ruling party in the US after 2008.

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