Mark Falcoff is the Resident Scholar Emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy. He writes to assess the threat that Hugo Chávez poses to the United States:
Just how dangerous is Chávez’s Venezuela to the United States? The answer is: both more and less than the media are telling us. In my forty-some years following Latin American issues, I’ve never been more struck by the bad reporting on this subject.
First, let’s talk about today’s Bloomberg dispatch. It reports that Chávez, just back from a trip to Moscow, has announced plans to develop a nuclear energy program with Russia. He doesn’t, however, want to build an atomic bomb–or so he says. Rather, the idea is to put into place something to substitute for the country’s oil and gas reserves, which, the Venezuelan strongman explained, won’t last forever.
Like all natural resources, Venezuela’s can be reliably predicted to be exhausted–some day. Oddly enough, however, until almost last week Chávez was telling us that his country possessed vast resources yet untapped, which, however, the friendly Russians and Chinese would help him pull out of the ground. Which is it?
What the media rarely report is that the existing plant in Venezuela is continuing to produce less and less oil every year–at this point roughly half of what it would normally be capable of extracting–because of bad management, the departure of qualified engineers, and plain old corruption, not to mention the squandering of petrodollars to buy political influence in Latin America and elsewhere (including Joe Kennedy’s Massachusetts) instead of investing in maintenance, spare parts, and acquisition of new technology.
Long before Venezuela enters the nuclear club–a very, very distant horizon that will probably never be reached–its oil production will dwindle to insignificance, at least if current trends continue indefinitely. When Chavez runs out of oil money he will run out of power–in Venezuela and elsewhere.
Second, let’s discuss the quasi-military alliance with the Soviet Union. Since he took power in 1998 Chavez has purchased more than four billion dollars worth of Soviet-era military equipment. Some of this is indeed troubling, particularly a plant to produce AK-47s, many of which will undoubtedly find themselves in the hands of Chavez’s guerrilla allies in Colombia. The rest will probably be stockpiled to arm Chávez’s supporters in the event of a civil war, something that is far from improbable.
Fortunately, much of what Chávez is buying (or says he will buy) is useless and very expensive. For example, quite recently he announced that the U.S. decision to move its drug trafficking operations from Ecuador (where a Chávez ally is in power) to Colombia is so provocative that he will be forced to buy “battalions and battalions” of Russian tanks. Where will these tanks be used? In the triple-canopy jungles on the border of the two countries? To invade Guyana? To defend the Venezuelan coastline against a Normandy-style invasion by the U.S.? Who can say?
Even sillier is Chávez’s decision–taken several years ago now–to buy eight or eleven or thirteen (the number keeps changing) Soviet-era submarines (remember what happened to the Kursk?). An Argentine friend of mine, an officer student at that country’s submarine school, told me not long ago that the Venezuelan naval officers sent there “would not qualify probably to be petty officers in the Argentine navy.” Bottom line: if Chávez wants to waste his money on subs that will likely head straight to the bottom of the sea, he should be our guest.
A far more troubling aspect of Chávez’s activities has to do with his relationship with Iran. This has been well reported in New York District Attorney Robert Morganthau’s op-ed published last week in the Wall Street Journal. There he said that Venezuela may be helping Iran to circumvent UN and U.S. sanctions through Chávez’s agents and subsidiaries. This is more than likely.
At present there are four Farsi-language television channels available in Caracas hotels. There are direct flights now (sometimes with a stopover in Damascus) between the Venezuelan capital and Tehran. One could easily imagine another dramatic event of the 9/11 type occurring in the United States, carried out not by Venezuelans, but by people who have entered this country with Venezuelan passports.
One might well ask, what makes Chávez tick? The answer is–resentment. He hates the United States, not for anything it has done, but for what it is–for being successful, dynamic, creative, and optimistic. He is ashamed of his own people, who (with few exceptions) are famously undisciplined, lethargic, corrupt and incompetent. The only way that he can feel good about being Venezuelan is to destroy the intimidating counter-example.
This is not socialism or Marxism–which after all are transnational ideologies. It is not Islamic fundamentalism, with which Chávez has forged a very unstable alliance. It is a more primitive, even non-ideological urge that will in all probability destroy Venezuela as a viable country (much the way Castro has done in Cuba) but before it does, could cause us considerable difficulty.
The important thing is to measure the threat in its proper proportions. The media need to sort out these issues instead of lumping them together–often with ill-disguised Schadenfreude. Yes, Chávez is something of a threat, though not a military one. His influence in Latin America and elsewhere is limited to his ability to finance friends and buy allies. His tendency to grandiosity is actually undermining his resource-base. The greatest danger, actually, is that his anti-Americanism could spin out of control, as outsiders take advantage of his disposition and his territory to try something he himself probably would not dare to attempt.