With Syria, Venezuelan Petrol-Diplomacy Favors Alliance over Ideology
If there were one consistent storyline to Hugo Chávez’s time as President of Venezuela, it would be his appeal to the masses. His programs aiding the poor are hugely popular, and have helped keep his approval ratings high. But Chávez’s handouts are not limited to domestic politics; Chávez has also given handouts, generally in the form of free or subsidized oil, to aid poor nations such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
However, foreign oil handouts by Venezuela may be coming to an end. For one, 2013 is an election year and the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, has already indicated that he will cease oil handouts to all but the poorest countries (he suggested that Haiti, for example, would still receive reduced-price oil from Venezuela). But even if Capriles loses the election, Chávez’s increasingly complicated health issues may prevent a third term in office, and therefore from continuing the program (Chávez insists his health is not an issue, but speculation persists that his cancer is more serious than originally believed. Not only may this keep him from continuing as President, but the longer his health makes campaigning unfeasible, the stronger Capriles’ chances of winning become).
Although Chávez claims his petrol-diplomacy program brings Venezuela economic benefits, apart from the Cuban example, it seems difficult to square Chávez’s policy with any sound economic policy (even the Cuban case seems stretched). With Cuba, Venezuela exchanged oil (around two-thirds of the island nation’s total supply) in exchange for the services of Cuban educators, doctors, and athletic coaches. However, with other Latin American nations the economic benefits for Venezuela are far more tenuous, if they exist at all. Rather, Chávez’s policy of giving oil handouts seems abstractly intended to improve Venezuelan foreign relations, while simultaneously antagonizing the United States.
But there is also an ideological aspect to Chávez’s handouts. Not coincidentally, his handouts in Latin America are directed towards other leftist governments, and more particularly countries within the Bolivarian Alliance. Helping the poor and fostering economic growth for the poor are key aspects to his time in charge. Bringing the popular masses power has been one of his goals.
In Syria, though, Chávez has opted for politics over ideology.
Chávez is a long-time ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad has been President of Syria since 2000, but his government has been fighting domestic unrest for the last 11 months. More particularly, in the last few weeks Assad’s regime has increased violence against has the opposition, and the death toll is in the dozens daily. Recently, Chávez sent two shipments of 300,000 barrels of oil each (600,000 total) to the war-inflicted nation.
The Venezuelan energy minister said that “Syria is a blockaded country. If (Syria) needs diesel and we can provide it, there’s no reason not to do it.’’ I find this explanation completely unsatisfactory and ironic. For one, although Syria is facing economic sanctions, there is no blockade as in the Cuban case.
But more deeply disconcerting is Chávez’s ability to turn a blind-eye to the violence his aid is indirectly supporting. The Syrian government is massacring its own people, and the vehicles it’s using rely on Venezuelan oil. In fact, even the Russian President-elect, Vladimir Putin, who historically has been anti-interventionist, has distanced himself from Syria in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, Chávez plods forward in his blind support of Bassar. While there is something commendable in sticking by a fallen ally, there is also a point when that ally is no longer an ally.
Chávez needs to recognize that he is giving oil to the government, and not the people. He is aiding a repressive government, and one that will probably face huge human rights charges for their current actions. While, to his credit, Chávez has often-times put his money where his mouth is and supported the poor across the world (in 2008, he even delivered free oil to heat the homes of 200,000 poor families in the U.S.), here he is running from supporting the vulnerable Syrian citizenry, and running directly to the oppressors- the Syrian Government.
Whether this is just another instance of Chávez trying to antagonize the U.S., Chávez has a stronger personal relationship with Bassar than I know of, or Chávez has a political scheme which he needs Syria for, he should seriously reconsider the violence and death his handouts are aiding.