Skip to main content

Ahmadinejad's hug and the future of Chavez's alliance

By Eduardo J. Gómez, Special to CNN
March 13, 2013 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eduardo J. Gómez: Ahmadinejad criticized back home for hugging Chávez's mother
  • He says support in Iran may be waning for alliance with Venezuela
  • Chavez bankrolled anti-U.S. alliance, but new leaders may not want to, he says
  • Gómez: Nations in Latin America may see benefits of improved relations with U.S.

Editor's note: Eduardo J. Gómez is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy & Administration at Rutgers University at Camden.

(CNN) -- At the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, his good friend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was photographed embracing Chávez's bereaved mother, in a show of compassion and support.

Back home in Tehran, Ahmadinejad was immediately bashed by newspapers and by conservative politicians who cited a religious prohibition against touching a woman who is not your wife or a relative.

While theology is a factor, there may have been a deeper message to this backlash from Tehran: that it's no longer cool to be supporting Chávez, his family and political allies, and that this alliance, like others cultivated by Chávez, may be in jeopardy.

Eduardo J. Gómez
Eduardo J. Gómez

Chávez put great effort into his friendship with Iran and into a broader alliance with other states in Latin America, with both efforts motivated in part by opposition to the United States' international role.

Chávez's death is certainly changing the political calculus in Venezuela, but will it also result in a broader shift that could realign much of Latin America and affect attitudes toward, and relationships with, the United States?

The answer is likely "yes."

First, the grouping of nations previously opposing the United States under Chávez's leftist alliance -- namely the "Alba" alliance, comprised of Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia -- could well wither away, due to Venezuela's ongoing recession and fears that alliance members will no longer have Venezuela's financial backing. When combined with reports of Chávez's expressed desire to strengthen ties with the Obama administration, regional hostility towards the United States may decline.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Since assuming office in 1999, Chávez viewed Washington as an oppressive force manipulating Latin American politics while keeping the region underdeveloped through its dependence on U.S. resources. In response, Chávez approached like-minded leaders to build a coalition challenging the regional influence of the United States.

By 2005, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and Ecuador joined Chávez's coalition, which led to the formation of the Bolivian Alliance of the Americas, also known as Alba. Alba served as an alternative to the Free Trade Act of the Americas, with an explicit focus on poverty reduction, but it also facilitated the unification of these nations in their anti-American sentiments .

With Chávez gone, however, there may be no one left who has the clout to keep financing this alliance. Venezuela is Alba's largest financier, contributing millions in aid to its members as well as oil at low prices. But Venezuelans may believe that with ongoing poverty and inequality, their country's needs are more important than those of Chávez's small club of nations.

This situation worries Alba members. According to Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, while Bolivia and Ecuador are independently wealthy and not financially dependent on Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua are.

Cuba receives roughly 100,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil a day, while Venezuela accounted for $8.3 billion of Cuba's $20 billion in foreign trade in 2011. Chávez also paid approximately $6 billion annually for 40,000 Cuban doctors and nurses, according to Reuters.

Cuban citizens fear that Chávez's death will push them back to the days of the post-Cold War recession, when Russia gradually withdrew its funding for Cuba. Meanwhile, Nicaragua has received approximately $500 million a year in loans and oil credits, increasing to $609 million in 2011, while earnings from agricultural exports to Venezuela increased from $2 million in 2006 to $300 million in 2011.

But alliance members also realize that they have options. Nicaragua's economic minister, Bayardo Arce, recently stated that it's time to diversify Nicaragua's economic relations with China, Europe and the United States, mainly because Nicaragua has "to anticipate that Alba is not going to be permanent." Cuba may also seek to strengthen its relations with Brazil, its second-largest trade partner in the region. In fact, both governments already have plans to engage in several trade and infrastructure projects and are ramping up trade, mainly in sugar exports.

Ecuador and Nicaragua are working more closely with Brazil in helping to construct hydroelectric energy plants and chemical industries, respectively. In addition to strong economic growth rates, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff's policy commitments to the poor and enhanced control over key economic sectors, such as oil, may provide a more appealing leftist model.

In recent years, Chávez was also interested in improving relations with the United States. He saw President Obama's re-election victory as an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic ties. Chávez once commented: "I wish we could begin a new period of normal relations." Chávez was so committed to this endeavor that even from his hospital in Cuba, he authorized his second in command, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, to start negotiating with the U.S. State Department.

While it may seem that Maduro may have a difficult time working with the United States, considering his accusations that the United States has historically plotted against Venezuela and the recent removal of U.S. diplomats from Caracas, it appears that this was mainly done to gain the trust of Chávez political supporters in order to secure Maduro's position as the next president.

U.S. diplomatic officials view Maduro as a pragmatist and the fact that he was supportive of initiating closer ties with the United States last year suggests that this could continue, especially in light of Venezuela's economic troubles and the need to increase revenues through trade.

Chávez's passing should motivate the United States to seek a new partnership with Venezuela. First, Secretary of State John Kerry should reopen the U.S. embassy in Caracas, which has been closed since 2010, while assigning diplomats who are committed to engaging in peaceful dialogue and political and economic cooperation.

Second, Kerry should take this opportunity to strengthen cooperation over issues that can provide mutual benefits in the areas of national security and the economy, such as counternarcotics, counterterrorism, as well as sustaining oil trade: the United States currently imports just under 1 million barrels a day from Venezuela.

But the United States should also see this situation as an opportunity to strengthen its ties with other nations, such as Cuba. With the likely decline in economic assistance to Cuba from Venezuela, Cuban President Raul Castro may consider stepping up negotiations with the Obama administration over the U.S. embargo, human rights and the release of American prisoners, such as Alan Gross.

Chávez is gone, but the United States' commitment to peaceful democratic relations persists. Going forward, the United States should explore ways of strengthening its ties with Venezuela and other Latin American nations.

But this is not a one-way street: Maduro in Venezuela will also need to find ways to strengthen his government's ties with the United States, which may be a balancing act if he wants to sustain his government's good relations with Iran, particularly after Ahmadinejad leaves office.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eduardo J. Gómez

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT