I’m inclined to think that the foreign policy of Hugo Chavez could provide grist for a generation of new international relations scholars. Chavez has pursued a fascinating anti-hegemonic strategy; gambling that hostility to the United States will be more profitable than friendship with the US. It’s a policy that not many Latin American leaders have pursued, and that fewer have succeeded with. Without doubt, it’s more risky for a Latin American country than a European one, the latter not needing to worry overmuch about the threat of a US sponsored coup.
This article on Venezuelan spending patterns is very interesting, demonstrating that Chavez has a conception of power and security that extends beyond the military sphere. Clearly, Chavez believes that general approval and perception of legitimacy among Latin (and North) American leaders will help him survive as much as new tanks and helicopters will. Venezuela is spending a lot of political and financial capital on soft influence. It would seem obvious that this project includes a genuine commitment to leftist goals, a desire to maximize Venezuelan power in the region, and a hope that foreign assistance will help immunize Venezuela from US intervention. These three can conflict in pretty serious ways, as pursuing left wing goals is a good way to earn the animosity of the US, and maximizing power can have the perverse effect of reducing security.
Chavez also has to play a domestic game, and the article suggests he may be having some trouble pursuing his foreign strategy and keeping his base quiet. Some Chavez supporters are apparently asking questions about why so much of Venezuela’s oil wealth is being spent on international projects, and it’s not hard to see why; the connections to increased Venezuelan prosperity are tenuous. Chavez derives domestic benefit from sticking his thumb in the eye of the US, but it’s not clear to me that international status and prestige translate all that well into domestic electoral success (is there any good work out there on that?). It’s possible that Chavez feels so secure in his domestic position that he doesn’t think he needs to worry about losing future elections. It’s also possible that he’s become overconfident, and has miscalculated the degree of his grip on power.