This Sunday Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect a new leader, following the death of Hugo Chavez after 14 years in power. If you’re a Latin America buff, this is very interesting, but if not, it is easy to wonder just why this election matters to the U.S.
One easy answer is oil. Venezuela is the fourth-largest source of foreign oil to the U.S. and has proven reserves larger than Saudi Arabia’s. With both the U.S. and the world economy dependent on petroleum products, Venezuela is set to remain a key player for years to come.
Despite the often fierce rhetoric between late president Hugo Chavez and the U.S. (on both sides,) oil has consistently tethered relations between the two countries. Venezuela provided free heating oil to communities in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and has continued the program for years afterwards, even as the U.S. government began to cut aid to poorer families for heating oil.
For their part, the U.S. has routinely waived economic sanctions against Venezuela, despite the fact that the U.S. presidents have consistently criticized the Chavez government for its human rights practices and counternarcotics efforts (or rather, alleged lack thereof.) The U.S. has consistently remained one of Venezuela’s most important trading partners both for oil exports and general imports.
The oil industry has also increased Venezuela’s clout with other countries in the region. This is partly because oil wealth has allowed Venezuela to resist American attempts to influence their national politics.
One way this oil-bought independence has manifested itself is through Venezuela’s relationship with Cuba. The U.S. maintains a 50-plus year embargo against Cuba, allegedly because of the human rights abuses of its non-democratic, communist government (no word yet on when we will impose an embargo on China or Saudi Arabia, but if that’s the rationale, it should be coming any day now. Any day.)
Anyway, for the past few decades, the U.S. has used its clout in the region to persuade other Latin American governments to likewise isolate Cuba. Not so with the Chavez government. Under Chavez, Venezuela became a sort of sponsor state for Cuba, providing the island with discounted oil, a move which undoubtedly helped to end what the Cuban government calls the “Special Period” (and which I like to call the “Fuck, the Collapse of the Soviet Union Means We Have No Sponsor State and We Are Now Completely Broke Period.”)
However, there has also been a decreasing willingness from other countries to continue toeing the U.S. line on Cuba. At last year’s Summit of the Americas, a meeting of all the countries in the Organization of American States, 32 states supported involving Cuba. The U.S. had to veto the move, supported only by Canada.
In addition, Hugo Chavez’s election precipitated a shift towards more leftist governments throughout the region, including Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. So although U.S. influence in the region remains strong, it is also clear that the balance of power in Latin America is changing, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was a key leader in that shift.