Missing the Point of Chavez's Anti-American Rants

The Washington Post runs this piece about Thomas Shannon’s probably doomed attempt to de-escalate the Caracas-Washington pissing match. Key bits:

After an especially ugly week in the hostile relationship between the Bush administration and the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s envoy here tried yesterday to salvage some civility, saying his country sought “mature and rational relations” with Washington and would remain a “reliable” source of energy to all foreign customers, including the United States.

The State Department responded in kind, with its spokesman saying Washington was “open to a good relationship with Venezuela” and hoped for a “positive one.” The spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that the two countries were cooperating in the fight against drugs and that the administration was prepared to work with governments across the political spectrum, including those with “left-of-center” views.

While not exactly wrong, I think this kind of reportage, focusing on the diplomatics of the Chavez-US tiff, misses much of the point. Chavez’s rhetorical anti-Americanism is more about domestic politics than about foreign policy. Taken directly out of Fidel’s playbook, its basic goals are to deflect attention from the revolution’s failures and, more perniciously, to delegitimize dissent.

As Teodoro Petkoff explains when you tar all dissidents as foreign agents, you make questioning the government tantamount to treason. This is obviously what Chavez is up to: he’s already said that, in December, the presidential election is going to be between him and the gringos. This kind of rhetoric has very little to do with what the US actually says or does, and everything to do with positioning himself to repress those who disagree with him (henceforth to be known as CIA agents) and extending autocratic control over society. The idea that there’s some change in US policy that might defuse Chavez’s vitriol is just naive: Chavez needs the US bogeyman to keep himself in power. You’d think that after a half-century facing this tactic in Havana, the Americans would’ve caught on.