Guest Post: Maduro's Limited Foreign Policy Agenda

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) meets Venezuela's Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro (L) in Tehran October 5, 2008. (Raheb Homavandi/Courtesy Reuters).

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) meets Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro (L) in Tehran October 5, 2008. (Raheb Homavandi/Courtesy Reuters).

This is a guest post by Stephanie Leutert, a research associate here at the Council on Foreign Relations who works with me in the Latin America program.

In recent years, Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro has played a leading role in crafting some of his country’s best known foreign policy and regional integration initiatives. Serving as Hugo Chávez’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2012, Maduro made a name for himself in the foreign policy world through his more radical policy (toward states such as Syria, Iran, and Libya) and at times, more pragmatic approach (especially toward Colombia). But in his role as president, Maduro’s foreign policy agenda has diminished, and will likely stay that way as long as his capacity to project abroad is limited by the turmoil at home.

From the beginning Maduro has struggled to gain his political footing. Unlike Chávez—who won his elections by landslides—Maduro entered office with both a slim majority and the din of cacerolazos (pot-banging protests). Soon after, he faced an opposition leader defiantly meeting with Colombia’s president, the voting dead scandal, and a leaked recording revealing his party’s infighting and corruption. While these types of political scandals and rivalries are nothing new in Venezuela, Chávez quickly put out the fires through a combination of charisma, public popularity, a network of political appointees, and strong military ties—all of which, to varying degrees, Maduro lacks.

Perhaps even worse for Maduro is his responsibility to keep Venezuela’s troubled economy afloat. Nearly complete focus on the country’s oil resources (making up a full 97 percent of exports) combined with widespread mismanagement across key sectors has affected average Venezuelans. Electricity and food shortages are common (one of every five basic goods is considered scarce) and the inflation rate hovers between 20 to 35 percent (even hitting 42 percent earlier this month). The crisis has already threatened Maduro’s approval ratings, ensuring that the country’s economy (and not foreign policy) will receive the lion’s share of his attention.

To top it off, Venezuela’s “twenty-first century socialism model” that was promoted across the hemisphere is also becoming a tougher sell. The state-based model has been losing regional-integration ground—at least in the public relations realm—to the Pacific Alliance (a free trade agreement between Chile, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and perhaps soon Costa Rica and Panama). These countries have so far agreed to eliminate 90 percent of tariffs, integrate their stock markets, and encourage more seamless migration, providing an energetic alternative to other regional initiatives. While it is still too early to predict how this newest alliance will fare over the long term, its growing buzz has detracted attention from Venezuela’s preferred models.

This is all not to say that Venezuela’s foreign policy can be counted out—it can’t, especially given the country’s enormous oil reserves, Chávez’s legacy of regional leadership, and Maduro’s willingness to irritate the United States for a few political points. But stabilizing his grasp on power and Venezuela’s economy will dominate Maduro’s agenda. And though efforts to unite Latin American countries through trade and energy will continue, today’s most popular initiatives may not be in the style that Chávez or Maduro would have wished.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.