CARACAS, Venezuela — In recent months, a new style of coffee has been served in Venezuelan cafes.
They call it an "Obama." It's black coffee and it's served with a spot of milk. In a lot of places that could be seen as a pretty racist image. But here in a country with a large black and mixed-race population it's meant as a warm tribute to the president-elect’s ethnic roots. In Venezuela, Obama’s ethnicity makes him instantly more acceptable than any other American president.
But for Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, the election of Obama is not so black and white.
President Chavez has built his stock, both at home and abroad, on fierce criticism of the U.S. and its policies in regard to Latin America. Chavez has famously called U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil”and “a donkey,” remarks that have gained him a reputation as a firebrand with some and a champion of the oppressed with others.
Chavez has been building alliances in Latin America and further afield that he claims are attempts to break the hegemony of the United States. He's been providing Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua with financial assistance and selling them cheap oil under favorable payment terms. Outside of the region, he has forged strategic alliances with Russia, China and Iran. His foreign policy motto appears to be that old axiom, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Bush’s aggressive international policies played into Chavez's hands, said Michael Shifter, vice president for foreign policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy center.
“Bush was the perfect foil for Chavez,” he explained. “In many ways he was the gift that gave on giving. He was perfect and Chavez relished it.”
But Obama could change the dynamic.
Obama's election throws Chavez off balance, Shifter said. “He will have to change his script." Obama has said that he is willing to talk with enemies of the U.S. — such dialogue would diminish Chavez’s role as an anti-establishment figure.
Obama's election comes at a low point in U.S.-Venezuela relations. In September, Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador to Caracas “in solidarity with Bolivia” after Bolivia’s President Evo Morales accused the U.S. of fomenting a coup. In November, Venezuela welcomed a fleet of Russian warships to conduct military exercises with the Venezuelan navy, a move that Russia and Venezuela described as peaceful, but which was widely interpreted as a provocative snub to the U.S.
To date, Chavez’s reaction to Obama's election has been mixed. He offered an olive branch, saying that he would be happy to meet with Obama, something he was not prepared to do with Bush. But in a December interview, Chavez also warned against “naivete” and said that he would be “cautious” because “Obama is the president of the empire, and all of its machinery is still intact.”
Carlos Luna, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela, believes that a meeting between Chavez and Obama is a strong possibility, and that dialogue with the Venezuelan president could change the equation.
“Obama will attack Chavez but it won't be a frontal attack,” Luna said. “It will be more strategic, more attacking Chavez’s image by asking, 'Why does he square up to me if I'm trying to cooperate with him?' So what the U.S. is going to do is a way of making a victim of itself. Chavez has always played the victim with Bush — 'They're going to kill me, they're going to kidnap me.' [Obama is] going to change the game.”
Much will depend on a referendum scheduled for early this year, in which Chavez is attempting to scrap presidential term limits, allowing him to continue as Venezuela’s leader beyond 2012.
Recent regional elections — in which opposition parties made significant gains, capturing the five most populated states — and falling oil prices have pricked Chavez's aura of invincibility. A defeat in the referendum may persuade the Obama administration to take a wait-and-see approach before making overtures to Chavez.