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Venezuela’s Demagogue Awash in Oil Money or First, Look at the Purse

By Maggie Petito

17.03.06 | Ask any normal teen-ager about his or her spending money as a minor and most likely they will let you know that their parents in some ways control their wallets. So, too, does the Congress of the United States jealously control its parvenu: U.S. federal finances, first by authorization and then by legislated appropriations. Often called, `the Power of the Purse,’ it is more a reminder of the wisdom in an old rhythm and blues song, `First, I look at the Purse.’ Any effort to understand U.S.-Latin foreign policy needs-must first look at the purse and that means: the primacy of the U.S. Congressional budget approvals. Unlike Napoleon’s army, nothing American operates solely on its belly and everything pertaining to U.S. foreign policy moves if and only if it is funded through the U.S. Congress.

On March 16, 2006, the White House of the United States released its first upgrade to its very good 2002 National Security policy, presented as America’s National Security Strategy.

On March 16, 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously voted to approve funds for, among many contentious items, Hurricane Katrina relief and support for Colombia’s spearheading of the on-going Andean regional struggle against Marxist-terrorism, often referred to under the old name Plan Colombia, which is in fact counterterrorism for the Andean region.

Of some interest to Latin watchers also on March 16, a U.S. House of Representatives’ Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Mark Up of three (3) assorted Continuing Resolutions was postponed for the sole reason that the exigencies mandated by necessity of a complete House debate and vote…on the purse…was slated for that same day regarding funds for sweeping efforts. The greater need overshadowed the smaller Subcommittee, as appropriate.

The items slated for mark up of resolution language ranged from Haiti’s recent elections to counterterrorism support in the Western Hemisphere to concerns regarding diminished democracy and justice in Venezuela. Continuing resolutions do not carry the power of the purse per se but can set the stage for later authorizations and maybe, just maybe, future appropriations. But the independent, choate power of the Congressional purse- what can or cannot be spent- supercedes.

We have been amused at the welter of self-serving comments regarding the postponement of the 3-16-06 Mark Up and attendant efforts to read more into this routine scheduling matter than is warranted. Unlike Latin American nations in general, the government of the United States goes to great lengths to inform the public writ large of its schedules and its budgets and its many procedures. We hasten to note that while never perfect, the ongoing commitment to transparent activities is a bedrock of U.S. federal governance and unlikely to diminish as the public clamors for additional information, which is guaranteed by law.

Behind the scenes on March 16, 2006 a larger, more important battle was brewing: additional `emergency supplemental’ funding to support defense and the Hurricane Relief plus an amendment to support Colombia and Andean regional counter-terrorism efforts, also furthering U.S.-Colombia free trade votes. To his credit, Congressman Dan Burton deftly exercised his leadership role as Subcommittee chair in what is now arguably one of the more challenging, politically fractious geo-political zones: Latin America. One would be correct to note that the greater good was served on March 16 by attending to full U.S. House of Representatives’ business that day. Certainly Hurricane Katrina victims and numerous other broad scale funding concerns would agree.

Comes now the same day’s release of the new U.S. National Security Strategy [White House National Security Strategy for 2006]. With mandatory separation of powers, the White House cannot force the U.S. Congress to do anything much at all: the U.S. Congress jealously guards its constitutionally-derived power of the purse. Bush’s new strategy is a welcome upgrade. Its predecessor, just four years’ old, was outmoded as world affairs have moved quickly in some regions.

What is even more welcomed, at last, is specific mention of Cuba and Venezuela. More than just treating Castro and Chavez like twins, separated at birth, the White House correctly pays eloquent attention to this duo. To have ignored the Chavez-Castro realities would have been a falsification of analysis and attendant strategy.

Setting the stage, the report notes, “The goal of our statecraft is to help create a world of democratic, well-governed states that can meet the needs of their citizens and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. This is the best way to provide enduring security for the American people.” This simple line justifies inarguably the basis of U.S. foreign policy. This is not some evil U.S. hegemony or some wafty U.S. global take-over plan: far from it. In fact, the U.S. does not even want the burden or budgetary obligations that attend any global or territorial take-over. The power of the purse prohibits such a thing. What is cost-effective globally are mature, self-sufficient economies of scale. There is no political crime whatsoever in encouraging self-sustaining governments: it is a universal greater good.

The 2006 National Security Strategy is notable for first ever additions: it opens by reminding Americans that we are at war and it also includes specific reference to Cuba and Venezuela:

• In Colombia, a democratic ally is fighting the persistent assaults of Marxist terrorists and drug-traffickers.

• In Venezuela, a demagogue awash in oil money is undermining democracy and seeking to destabilize the region.

• In Cuba, an anti-American dictator continues to oppress his people and seeks to subvert freedom in the region.”

Such an honorable mention places Chavez and Castro squarely where they should be: defined with high priority in a report on national security. Without questioning the previous need for a Congressional resolution, the NSC’s statement replaces any urgency for any congressional resolution to define actions by Venezuela today by its straight forward definition.

The only area where the NSC’s report misses its mark is in claiming that U.S. foreign assistance helps build rule of law in Third World nations. This is simply not the case. Gathering steam in the late 1990’s, multilateral foreign assistance has installed so-called court reforms and actively acted to install decriminalization of multiple codes, laws, and norms, and has assiduously and notably decried the exigency of building structural rule of law, against the will of the U.S. Congress. In a democratic republic, rule of law is not to be mangled and considered synonymous with flimsy court and justice reform movements to install paper-free courts and arbitration courts to supercede functioning courts with real and enforceable legal codes, under the theory that criminals should never be stigmatized.

Rule of law is one of the four pillars of democracy. Development experts have all but abandoned any support for rule of law, leaving most democracies inchoate, wobbly, and with an amputated leg, teetering and inoperable. We know a little bit about rule of law. We know, too, that most law schools in Latin America place a low premium on educating their law students regarding contract law, preferring instead to focus on policy and verbal practicum. Without functioning contract law, upheld by actual judges in actual court rooms- not virtual courts, hand picked and [mis]guided by ngos of scant to no legal training, there is no rule of law.

Each and every nation that has lifted itself out of Third World status and in to functioning economies has what The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation correctly calls functioning Economic Freedoms. Poor nations whose majorities are poor people, regardless of national wealth, have no economic freedom because, in main, they have no rule of law and no contract law to protect any erstwhile effort to grow any capitol or rise up and out of stubborn poverty. Poverty will remain stubborn, year after year, without rule of law. Charity alone or even communist state held ownership alone has never lifted whole nations out of poverty for any length of time. Only functioning economic growth, guaranteed under stabilizing rule of law, succeeds in the long run. To ignore this pillar of growth is to perform perhaps the cruelest, most insidious, poverty retaining acts. While President Bush is correct to note that democracy and attendant rule of law is de rigueur, we perhaps should point out that no functioning democratic republic exists without rule of law. Thus, third world nations may claim democracy’s fruits by sheer dint of election machinery- increasingly pre-rigged, but their own leaders fail their citizens by not enshrining organic rule of law for all citizens. Although random, unstable speculative economies do appear and enjoy some short-lived appeal for some, in the long run, economies of scale, absent rule of law, will not rise to 2nd or 1st world economic status in any meaningful, sustainable way.

As the White House correctly notes:

“Nations that lack the rule of law are prone to corruption, lack of transparency, and poor governance. These nations frustrate the economic aspirations of their people by failing to promote entrepreneurship, protect intellectual property, or allow their citizens access to vital investment capital. We cannot pretend that our interests are unaffected by states’ treatment of their own citizens. America’s interest in promoting effective democracies rests on an historical fact: states that are governed well are most inclined to behave well.

We will encourage all our partners to expand liberty, and to respect the rule of law and the dignity of the individual, as the surest way to advance the welfare of their people and to cement close relations with the United States.

The National Security Strategy is the parvenu of the elected administration and as such, it is the White House’s authorship. Although never conceived in a vacuum, it is the foreign policy duly promoted by dint of elected presence in the White House.

On Latin America, the report states:

“The Western Hemisphere- - These principles guide our relations within our own Hemisphere, the frontline of defense of American national security. Our goal remains a hemisphere fully democratic, bound together by good will, security cooperation, and the opportunity for all our citizens to prosper. Tyrants and those who would follow them belong to a different era and must not be allowed to reverse the progress of the last two decades. Countries in the Hemisphere must be helped to the path of sustained political and economic development. The deceptive appeal of anti-free market populism must not be allowed to erode political freedoms and trap the Hemisphere’s poorest in cycles of poverty. If America’s nearest neighbors are not secure and stable, then Americans will be less secure.

Our strategy for the Hemisphere begins with deepening key relationships with Canada and Mexico, a foundation of shared values and cooperative policies that can be extended throughout the region. We must continue to work with our neighbors in the Hemisphere to reduce illegal immigration and promote expanded economic opportunity for marginalized populations. We must also solidify strategic relationships with regional leaders in Central and South America and the Caribbean who are deepening their commitment to democratic values. And we must continue to work with regional partners to make multilateral institutions like the OAS and the Inter-American Development Bank more effective and better able to foster concerted action to address threats that may arise to the region’s stability, security, prosperity, or democratic progress. Together, these partnerships can advance our four strategic priorities for the region: bolstering security, strengthening democratic institutions, promoting prosperity, and investing in people.”

The entire 54 page report is worth the read. Better yet, worthy goals for democratic progress and solid advice for growing global economies, to grow liberty’s power and poverty-reducing purses.

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