Venezuelan Strategic Culture-July 2009 (Click for pdf version of full report), by Harold Trinkunas
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Dr. Harold Trinkunas is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His research has focused on Latin American politics, particularly on civil-military relations, and terrorism financing… Prior to joining NPS, Dr. Trinkunas served as the field officer for the Carter Center electoral observation mission in Venezuela during the highly contested 1998 congressional and presidential elections.
The political-ideological orientation guiding the Chávez administration’s foreign policy is misaligned with Venezuela’s traditional strategic culture. This creates internal friction during international crises because a large majority of the Venezuelan population rejects war unless it is in the defense of the national territory. (4)
Traditional elite keepers of national strategic culture in Venezuela have been sidelined, purged, or dismantled during the Chavez regime. They no longer pose a significant check to President Hugo Chavez vis-à-vis his decision-making process. Rather, foreign policy is guided by an anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal economics, and anti-globalization vision that views the United States as the main threat to the Bolivarian revolution and Venezuelan sovereignty.
Strategic culture at the mass level, as reflected by public opinion polls, has changed little during the Chavez regime despite a concerted effort to win adherents to the regime’s ideology. The Venezuela public is still deeply pacifist and rejects the idea of the United States as a significant threat. (5)
Venezuela strategic culture has no historical element of anti-Americanism (unlike other Caribbean states). The Venezuelan public is a major consumer of American cultural products and generally favors good relations with the United States. This runs counter to the Chávez administration’s international orientation and its efforts to mobilize the population for national defense against the United States. (5-6)
The inability to significantly influence mass strategic culture represents vulnerability for the Chavez administration since the general public still overwhelmingly rejects a confrontational, hostile foreign policy. To the extent that the regime still depends on electoral victories for legitimacy and power, this state of affairs acts as a check on President Chavez’s foreign policy. (6-7)
The disconnection between regime ideology and mass strategic culture is a potential critical vulnerability for the Chávez regime in future international confrontations. (9)
Certain key interpretations of the founding narrative of Simón Bolívar have been handed down through Venezuelan history and are embedded in strategic culture. The first message is that Venezuelans have a capacity for national greatness and can play an active role in affecting the course of history to a disproportionate extent. This is particularly true when it comes to intraregional politics in Latin America, where the legacy of Simón Bolívar leads Venezuelans to believe that their country should play a special and active role to forge regional consensus. This perspective frequently leads them to overestimate their country’s relative capabilities. (11-12)
The major territorial dispute Venezuela has with Guyana is a legacy of this period, although Venezuelan governments have preferred pursuing this dispute via international legal mechanisms rather than by force. The bottom line is that Venezuelans connect internal disorder with international vulnerability. However, this also leads Venezuelans to react in a jingoistic and nationalist fashion whenever they feel the territorial integrity of their county is threatened. (13-14)
Beyond the almost trite reference to the impact of ‘Dutch Disease’ on the Venezuelan economy, the concentration of most wealth in the hands of the state has oriented the population towards access to the state as the main source of political power and personal enrichment. It also leads the population to perceive the state as wealthy and to overestimate Venezuela’s national power. This has produced a predilection for populism and statism among citizens. (15)
Since World War II, the dominant influence has been the United States and its NATO allies. Even under the Chávez administration, military doctrine and technology have been almost entirely imported from Russia, Cuba, and Iran. The lack of an autonomous technological base and a dependence on imports is a major weakness for Venezuela and undermines its ability to develop a serious military capability. This has a profound effect on strategic culture in that Venezuela has a predilection to engage in an activist foreign policy, yet faces a number of impediments and shortcomings to supporting such a policy. (16)
On the other hand, some institutions that might act as keepers of strategic culture in other states are not relevant in Venezuela. The foreign and interior ministries, associated with borders, internal stability, and external security, have little to contribute to the national strategic culture since they have been traditionally quite politicized throughout Venezuelan history and thus reflected the strategic culture of whatever the ruling political class was at the time. The political opposition to President Chávez is so focused on the domestic political struggle for survival and is so new (emerging only since 1999) that the opposition’s perceptions of strategic culture do not differ notably from that of the mass public. Economic elites, normally relevant to political culture in many states, have less of an impact on strategic culture in the Venezuelan case since the importance of oil in the national economy has made them largely dependent on the government for success. Venezuela’s economic classes have therefore developed a very flexible and pragmatic worldview that generally accommodates changing ideologies. (17)
It is worth noting that one of the sources of military discontent during the democratic period that preceded the Chávez regime was the shifting of the military away from internal development and security roles (where the military could work directly with the people) and toward conventional defense (since they were unlikely to fight a war). For this reason, the developmentalist role President Chávez assigned the military upon taking office made him initially popular among officers and soldiers. (18)
The modern political parties that led Venezuela between 1958 and 1998, COPEI and Accion Democratica (AD), also reflected a version of the national strategic culture that focused on diplomatic engagement with the world, viz., by leveraging petrodollars in a bid to win Venezuela outsized influence over decisions made by the international community. It is these parties (although each had a somewhat different perspective) that pursued a foreign policy that created OPEC, supported democratization across the world, and called for the reordering of the international system to favor the developing world through leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement. A snapshot of Venezuela’s international activism can be seen by examining its role in Central America, where it funded the overthrow of Somoza in Nicaragua, funded the government of President Duarte against the FMLN in El Salvador during the 1980s, funded and led the Contadora group negotiating for peace in Central America during the same period, and then supported President Chamorro during her leadership of Nicaragua’s transition back to democracy in the 1990s. These parties were not only seeking to translate Venezuela’s oil production into international power, but they were seeking to do so in that context of a general strategic culture that favored a role for Venezuela in promoting liberty. Although these parties have largely disappeared in terms of their electoral influence, elements of the strategic culture they bore can be found threaded through the international strategies of both the Chavista and opposition political parties in Venezuela. (19-20)
President Chávez and his political movement reflect the Venezuelan strategic culture to the extent that they appeal to heroic visions of a Venezuela that has outsized influence in Latin America, that critiques the present world order as unfair, that uses its petrodollars to achieve international objectives, and promotes political allies in Latin America through the use of its diplomatic and economic power. These are elements of the Chavista worldview that are clearly in tune with the national strategic culture. (20-21)
A second area…has been to identify the United States as the most important external threat to Venezuela’s sovereignty, self-determination, and potential for greatness. Having never been invaded by the United States, Venezuelans do not have a historic strategic culture tinged with anti-Americanism, and Chavismo has had to work hard to convince the general population (so far unsuccessfully) that the US was, and still remains, a real threat. President Chávez has even appealed to Simón Bolívar to justify this attitude (and the Liberator was suspicious of US intentions late in his life), but this is part of the Bolivarian philosophy that never had much cultural penetration in Venezuela. It is true that the US strategic posture during the 2000s and the war in Iraq were unpopular in Venezuela, which gave the anti-American message some traction during the first decade of the Chávez regime. However, the advent of a new administration in the United States and the winding down of the war in Iraq will most likely undercut this message further. (21)
The third area where ideology has trumped national strategic culture has been that Venezuela under President Chávez has sought out non-traditional allies, frequently among autocratic states, to help counterbalance the power and influence of the United States. This is seen as a way to both deter any threat to the survival of the Bolivarian Revolution and to prevent the US from checking Venezuela’s global influence. This policy includes arms purchases from Russia, economic deals with China, and strategic partnerships with Iran and Cuba. Within Venezuelan strategic culture, none of these states are seen as natural allies, particularly those that fall outside the Latin American region. While President Chávez’s efforts to seek greater Latin American unity or achieve leadership within the region resonate with the national strategic culture due to the legacy of Bolívar, these international alliances do not. (21-22)
The strategic culture of the general public in Venezuela is much more skeptical about the wisdom of international entanglements than its elite culture. In fact, despite ten years of concerted effort by the Chávez regime to mold public opinion in favor of its antiimperialist and activist Bolivarian foreign policy, there is little evidence of significant shifts in mass strategic culture that would support such a stance. Although cross-temporal polling data is not available on all the possible questions associated with defense and international affairs, what is available is highly suggestive and supports the conclusion that Venezuelan strategic culture is defensive, inward looking, and opposed to significant or expensive international commitments. This poses significant problems for Chavista foreign policy insofar as it wants or needs to have public approval for its actions. (22-23)
The general attitude of Venezuelans towards the United States (designated as threat #1 by Chavismo) is that it would be simply irrational to fight with the United States, and that the United States falls more into the category of a significant power with which Venezuela should have good relations. Historically, Venezuela has looked to the United States for assistance during key crises, and this is the attitude of many in the political opposition in their struggle with the Chávez regime. The general attitude towards the United States is supported by the finding that, in October 2008, only 20% of Venezuelans supported the idea of breaking diplomatic relations with the United States (as President Chávez periodically threatens to do).
Similarly, Venezuelan mass public opinion rejects foreign entanglements. The notion of hosting Russian or Chinese military bases was rejected by over 80% in recent polls (as was the idea of hosting US military bases). The use of Venezuelan funds for development purposes in other countries or to support the Bolivian military was also rejected by large majorities. Even President Chávez’s frequent foreign travel was criticized, although this only by a bare majority of respondents. (23)
It is worth noting that 60% of Venezuelans favor a role for their government in negotiating a peaceful settlement of the Colombian internal conflict, although their sympathies are pretty clearly against the FARC, with only 18% opposing the label of the FARC as a terrorist organization. (23-24)
Although these recent (2007-2008) polling data suggest that Venezuela’s defensive and inward-looking strategic culture still prevails, we should keep in mind that 15-20% of the Venezuelan population does support the most controversial foreign policy proposals of President Chávez. This suggests that Chavista foreign policy plays well to the hard line partisans in the movement, but less well with the moderate supporters (45- 55%) that consistently support the President on domestic policy issues and help him win elections. However, the hard line component of the movement is important to the President’s political success since these are the activists most likely to turn out to support political campaigns, participate in the “misiones,” and defend the revolution in the streets, if necessary, as occurred during the 2002 coup attempt. (24)
The key international rivalry in Venezuelan strategic culture is Colombia. The armed forces have always seen Colombia as the peer-competitor against which to plan their strategies, acquisitions, and infrastructure. Venezuelans imagine Colombians to be much tougher, more violent, and more likely to use force than they are. They are also seen as having possibly predatory ambitions with regards to key areas of Venezuela’s land and sea borders. This mindset persists despite decades of Colombian migration to Venezuela, considerable cross-border trade and integration, and a substantial degree of cultural similarity in the Andean regions of the two states. President Uribe’s tough stance on insurgents and paramilitary actors, the attack on the FARC base in Ecuador, and the generally conservative, security oriented tenor of his government reinforce this image of Colombia as a state that is more prone to aggression and war than Venezuela.
On the one hand, this presents an advantage for President Chávez whenever he takes a hard stance vis-à-vis the Uribe government since Venezuelans are often prepared to think the worst of Colombians. Even his verbal and covert support for the FARC does not generate too much controversy, despite the average Venezuelan thinking less well of the FARC than they do of the rest of their neighbors. As long as Chávez publicly cloaks his relations with the FARC in terms of trying to achieve lasting peace in Colombia, this is generally acceptable to most Venezuelans since they do not believe that armed confrontation is a solution to their neighbor’s internal conflict. However, the defensive strategic culture of Venezuelans does not support more overt aggressive moves against Colombia either, and the very sudden and negative public reaction to Venezuelan escalation against Colombia following the bombing of the FARC base in Ecuador is evidence of this. This suggests that by far the least politically costly way for President Chávez to oppose the Uribe administration’s policies is covertly, through support for the FARC and other political actors hostile to the Colombian government. (25)
The economic dependency of Venezuela on the US has deepened during the past decade, and no amount of fulmination by President Chávez against the United States has been able to reduce Venezuelan consumption of US culture in various forms through the medium of movies, television, baseball, music, et cetera. Traditionally, Venezuelans have been one of the least anti-American of Latin American societies, and while this sentiment has grown, particularly among the hard line supporters of President Chávez, it simply cannot get much traction within the general public. It is true that a larger number of Venezuelans held a negative evaluation of the Bush administration, but pollsters in Venezuela suggest that this almost entirely due to the Iraq war (i.e. Venezuelans are against all wars) than any growth in anti-American sentiment.
The positive image of the United States in Venezuela’s strategic culture makes it very difficult for Venezuelans to take the notion of war between the two countries seriously. This means that President Chávez’s generally confrontational line with the United States, complete with accusations of coup conspiracies, assassination plots, and the like, does not play particularly well with the general public. It also means that it is difficult to convince the keepers of elite strategic culture, particularly the military, to seriously prepare for a military confrontation with the United States. (26)
However, the recent coup in Honduras highlights another wrinkle posed by Venezuelan strategic culture, which is an aversion to conflict or to using Venezuelan troops abroad. Public opinion rejects the notion of using Venezuelan troops to defend President Evo Morales of Bolivia, and there is little reason to suspect that there would be a different view of the situation in Honduras. This means that, when President Chávez tries to use his military capabilities to support his foreign policy, as occurred during the Ecuador-Colombia border incident in March 2008, or threatens to do so, as occurred during the internal tensions in Bolivia over the approval of [sic] new constitution, he consistently runs into a roadblock on negative public opinion. Given the importance of elections for President Chávez’s strategy of staying in power, negative public opinion is a serious cost worth taking into account when crafting foreign policy. (27-28)
By going against the grain of the national strategic culture, Chavista foreign policy runs the risk of misfires. The distance between mass strategic culture and the Chavista ideological preferences on international affairs is a major vulnerability because the regime risks losing support and losing popularity whenever it engages in radical foreign policy adventures. The negative public opinion impact of the Venezuelan escalation of the Ecuador-Colombia crisis in 2008 is a recent example of such the disconnection between the regime and mass strategic culture. (29)
While Venezuela retains an electoral regime, it has become progressively authoritarian over the last decade. The efforts by the Chávez administration to reverse opposition victories in the recent state and local elections by developing institutional mechanisms for defunding and disempowering newly-elected opposition figures, and harassing the opposition, are only the latest indication of this trend. (29)
In addition, President Chávez has deliberately undermined the autonomy of and taken control of the most autonomous institutions in the state, that is, the military and PDV, which also happen to be the main keepers of strategic culture. After the failure of the 2002 coups, the military lost all vestiges of autonomy, and the regime exercised increasing ideological control over the armed forces. Although the new military salute, “Patria, socialismo o muerte,” garnered the most publicity, the regime has also been able to enforce public compliance among officers with the ideological precepts of the regime. To this is added the increased funding for military activities and lucrative opportunities for self-enrichment through participation in acquisitions and development projects. Given its druthers, the contemporary military strategic culture would still prefer a defensive role focused on internal development and security, would favor Western rather than Russian equipment and doctrine, and would consider the idea of war with the United States ludicrous. However, its preferences (and strategic culture) are no longer relevant to the decision-making of the regime. Similarly, the purge of the technical and managerial ranks of PDV following the 2003 general strike deprived the organization of the key leadership personnel that were the keepers of a world-class, highly competitive strategic culture centered on energy. The new leadership of PDV is entirely Chavista in its orientation, and PDV has become a major bankroller and executing agent for the regime. In this case, it is not possible to even speak of latent strategic culture as is the case in the military. (30)
As long as the regime, no matter how authoritarian, continues to need electoral victories to retain power, negative public opinion about foreign policy adventures will remain a factor in President Chávez’s political calculations. (31-32)