October 24, 2008               

AMHERST, Mass.—It is critical that the United States develop a counter-strategy to the “social power” diplomacy deployed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his government, but a hard-line response—such as military or economic aggression—is most certainly not the answer to Chavez’s rhetoric, Amherst College’s Javier Corrales, professor of political science, told a House Committee on Foreign Affairs subcommittee recently. The best course for American policymakers, he explained, involves identifying and punishing lawbreakers in the Chavez administration in addition to promoting democratic pluralism abroad.

In his testimony before the group this summer, Corrales shared this view and some other thoughts on the Latin American nation’s domestic politics and foreign policy. After delivering a statement describing his views on Venezuela, he participated in a panel discussion with other experts—including Reps. Eliot Engel and Dan Burton and Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, among others—and then responded to questions.

Corrales, author of the book Presidents Without Parties: The Politics of Economic Reform in Argentina and Venezuela in the 1990s, began by discussing the first of two issues that he believes will ultimately impact the United States: a wave of political discontent sweeping Venezuela. The widespread unhappiness, he said, stems from the government’s increasingly radical policies and economic woes. As a result of both of these problems, the popularity of the Chavez administration has declined, making it potentially politically unstable—and possibly a huge problem for the American government.

The second issue, Corrales explained, is Venezuela’s “social spending” abroad. The country, he said, is using generous handouts peppered with pro-poor, distributionist discourse as a weapon in its foreign policy arsenal. In other words, Chavez freely wields “soft power”—investing billions of dollars worldwide in social projects, for example—to win admirers and supporters abroad. “Other petro-states with nastier, gutsier and more competent leaders could replicate Venezuela’s social power model and improve on it,” the professor said. “The result could be the meaner rogue states masquerading as international humanitarians.”

Corrales wrapped up his talk by discussing his idea to root out criminals in the Venezuelan administration and continue pushing democratic principles around the world. “The most effective checks on Venezuela’s foreign policy have come from opposition parties in the countries where Chavez intervenes,” he concluded. Still, “opposition actors can only be strong if they operate in strong pluralist democracies, [because] strong democracies can provide checks on the kind of social power that Venezuela is projecting. … [They] may not save the world from wars or yield durable allies who think and act like the United States, but they seem to be our best available tool, however indirect, to counteract what seems to be a new type of foreign policy threat.”

Read the manuscript of Corrales’ testimony.

Read more about Corrales.

At Amherst since 1996, Corrales has a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, specializing on the politics of economic and social policy reform in developing countries. His research has been published in academic journals such as Comparative Politics, World Development, Political Science Quarterly, International Studies Quarterly, World Policy Journal, Latin American Politics and Society, Journal of Democracy, Latin American Research Review, Studies in Comparative International Studies, Current History and Foreign Policy.  He currently serves on the editorial board of Latin American Politics and Society and is working on a book manuscript about constitutional reforms in Latin America. In 2005, he was a Fulbright Scholar in Caracas, Venezuela, and then traveled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to serve as a visiting lecturer at the Center for Research and Documentation on Latin America. In 2000, he became one of the youngest scholars ever to be selected as a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.  He has also been a consultant for the World Bank, the United Nations, the Center for Global Development and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.