International Mediation in Venezuela. Jennifer McCoy and Francisco Diez. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2011. 275 pp.
By Tara Ornstein
Venezuela has once again fallen out the global media’s spotlight, but given the country’s abundant natural resources, there was a time when the international community was heavily invested in maintaining peace there. In International Mediation in Venezuela, Jennifer McCoy and Francisco Diez describe the efforts of the Carter Center, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nations (UN) to mediate the conflict between then-President Hugo Chavez and a loose alliance of different political groups opposed to Chavez.
As President Jimmy Carter writes in the foreword, the purpose of this book is “to contribute to the historical record so that others may assess [the Carter Center’s] work and draw lessons that may be useful for future conflict prevention efforts” (p. 36). The Carter Center and its partners began their work in Venezuela after the April 2002 coup that ousted President Chavez from power for two days before the Venezuelan military reinstated him. With the country on the edge of civil war, President Chavez and opposition leaders invited the Carter Center, the OAS, and the UN to facilitate a resolution to the political conflict before it erupted into civil war. Although they projected initially that their work would last approximately two months, they spent two years working in Venezuela with President Carter personally traveling to the country six times and OAS Secretary General César Gaviria actually living in Venezuela for seven months.
The Carter Center’s Director of the Americas Program Jennifer McCoy and Expert Mediator Francisco Diez wrote this book using personal notes, meeting minutes, and official correspondence with the conflicting parties among other primary source material. The book includes descriptions of their successes such as preventing the outbreak of violence during the June 2002 oil strike (p. 222) and their failures, which include linking progress to weekly meetings that never took place (p. 89), simultaneously serving as mediators and election monitors which created a conflict of interest (p. 139), and overstaying their welcome by not leaving when their mandate ended in June 2004 (p. 228). The most interesting points of the book, however, are the passages related to the oil trade, the principle of noninterference in Latin America, and the authors’ portrayal of the opposition.
The Oil Trade
McCoy and Diez rightly point out that “there are structural constraints on how much influence international actors can have on a resource-rich state” (p. 222). This book describes exactly how Venezuela’s oil actually helped keep the country’s adversary—Chavez—in power for some time. In one example, McCoy and Diez explain how the United States was planning a military offensive in Iraq in February 2003 and wanted the oil strike in Venezuela to end even if that meant Chavez would stay in power because reduced oil production caused by simultaneous crises in Iraq and Venezuela would have been disastrous for the global economy (p. 83). Colombia faced similar challenges—before the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, bilateral trade between Colombia and Venezuela amounted to US$4 billion annually, with about two-thirds of that in Colombian exports to Venezuela. As McCoy and Diez summarize “. . . the mutual trade dependence between the United States and Venezuela, and between Venezuela and Colombia, restrained the United States and Colombia from initiating permanent breaks with Venezuela” (p. 217).
Aside from the United States and Colombia, dependence on Venezuelan oil limited the possibilities available to the wider international community. “Venezuela’s significant petroleum revenues and the related commercial interests of foreign governments both reduced the leverage of those international actors who might otherwise have made internationals loans and aid conditional upon domestic political reform, and influenced the actions of foreign governments benefiting from commercial relationships with Venezuela and discounted Venezuelan oil” (p.226).
Latin American Aversion to Interference
The countries that had influence in Venezuela, namely Brazil and Argentina, had no appetite for intervening. “As a reaction to the history of foreign intervention in the region, Latin American countries have traditionally required a high level of respect to the sovereign rights of nations and to the principle of noninterference” (p. 36). Moreover, then-Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Argentinian president Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner both had a close personal relationship with Chavez. After his passing in 2013, Kirchner referred to Chavez as “the best friend Argentina had when everybody else abandoned us.”
In addition to their own history with foreign intervention, Latin American countries were fearful of “setting precedents for international monitoring and sanctions on internal domestic affairs . . . lest they be next to receive unwanted international attention” (p. 227).
McCoy and Diez write openly that the Carter Center staff began their work in Venezuela with more trust from President Chavez and his government than the opposition. Although the authors emphasize their objectivity, the opposition’s distrust of Carter Center staff appears to have affected McCoy and Diez, who heavily criticize the decisions taken by the opposition. In their view, “disarray and bickering among opposition forces left voters with no clear alternative to the Chavez presidency” (p. 184). Chavez, in contrast, is described as being pragmatic and working strategically to achieve his goals.
McCoy and Diez also describe how the opposition “enthusiastically” called a general strike in December 2002, which the state oil company joined (p. 74–75) thinking that this would force the Chavez government to “come running to the table to negotiate” (p. 76). On the first day of the strike, the OAS tried unsuccessfully to broker an agreement at the Melia Hotel in Caracas. Even though McCoy and Diez describe how the government had an equally delusional view of the strike, the authors seem to fault the opposition members for their shortsightedness:
“By February 2003, after two months of struggle with no quarters given, the government managed to normalize the company’s vital operations, and Chavez had his own men at the helm. He had won the battle. The strike lasted sixty-two days, cost the country billions in losses, and completed altered the political landscape for years to come. It could all have been avoided had negotiations succeeded that night in the Melia Hotel” (p. 75).
In reality, however, the opposition was a diverse group of members of Venezuelan political parties who needed to discuss and vote on every decision they made. Unlike his opponents, Chavez was not accountable to anyone. His position was the government’s position, end of story. The opposition may have been an unruly group who needed considerable amounts of time to reach a consensus; however, they were far closer to democracy than President Chavez.
Writing in 2010, McCoy and Diez assert presciently that “the extreme concentration of power in the president’s hands with no clear successor or institutional legacy meant that the country was not only subject to his own changing ideas but also vulnerable to any accident or illness befalling him” (p. 218). In recent months, the consequences McCoy and Diez warned about were visible when violence erupted in early 2014.
Venezuela has a sophisticated electorate who are committed to their country’s future. But this book serves as an example of the positive influence the international community, particularly Venezuela’s friend and neighbors in Latin America, can have on mitigating political violence there. What remains unclear is whether the lessons McCoy and Diez present so clearly in their book were learned or ignored.