The Persistence of Memory: U.S. Foreign Policy Strategy for Venezuela Through the Clinton and Bush Administrations

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our third annual student writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present an essay selected for honorable mentions by Justin Hauffe from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

It was as if the words of the great Latin American poet, Pablo Neruda, were true: the ghost of El Gran Libertador, Simón Bolívar, had returned. This sentiment was alive in the hearts of many Venezuelans, and the barrios of Caracas were electrified with revolutionary hope and passion in February of 1999, as Hugo Chavez took the dais of Congress to be sworn in as the new president of Venezuela. The charisma and forcefulness of this new self-proclaimed Bolivarian leader had swept over Venezuela in a frenzied and powerful cult of personality that had striking similarities to Fidel Castro's influence on Cuba in 1959. While Chavez was taking over the country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world, the U.S. was in a daze as the Senate acquitted President Bill Clinton on two articles of impeachment.[1] However, if Chavez did not capture U.S. interest in the 1990s, then he certainly would in the 2000s by selling oil to Cuba, making petroleum business alliances with Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi, supporting Colombian rebels, threatening gas prices across all of the U.S., and openly calling President George W. Bush "el Diablo" (the Devil), at the U.N. general assembly.[2] Analysis of U.S. foreign policy toward Venezuela through both the Clinton and subsequent administration of President George W. Bush reveals a type of non-committal waffling in backing the opposition to leftist Venezuelan administrations that yielded neither a decisive change in Venezuelan policy nor a significant benefit to U.S. interests, but rather irreparably damaged U.S.-Venezuelan relations and inspired provocative behavior by Chavez.

The type of Venezuelan neoliberalism that aligned with U.S. values was already in decline when Clinton took office in 1993. During the early 1990s, the political backlash from the Venezuelan government’s violent handling of Caracazo—a wave of nation-wide protest and riots against price hikes to public services caused by neoliberal economic reforms—cast a shadow over the administration of Venezuelan president, Carlos Andrés Pérez.[3] Despite this unrest, Pérez enabled the privatization of many major state-run Venezuelan industries and companies that had previously faced bankruptcy under government control.[4] Pérez also passed a series of reforms intended to strengthen the connection local communities made to individual candidates.[5] Prior to Pérez’s reforms, the electorate only voted on a political party—individuals did not see the name of the actual human candidate on the ballot.[6] Pérez changed this policy by making it possible for voters to see the name of the person they were electing.[7] To the detriment of his own administration, the overall effect of Perez’s reforms in the early 1990s was to weaken the power of the central government and increase the ire of the political and working-class Venezuelans who had benefited from publicly controlled industry.[8] Pérez had unintentionally placed his government in a precarious position and made the conditions in Venezuela ripe for revolution, which came in the form of then Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez’s failed coup attempt in 1992.

Raphael Caldera , President of venezuela, during his second term. (Reuters)

The Clinton administration took office in 1993, the year following Chavez’s failed coup, and there is evidence that Clinton sought to maintain a relatively amicable relationship with both pre- and post-Chavez Venezuela. From 1993 until Chavez's victorious election in 1998, Venezuelan oil production rose steadily, and the U.S. was the largest consumer of this staple Venezuelan export.[9] In other words, the U.S. and Venezuela had a symbiotic economic relationship. This relationship was reinforced in 1997 when Clinton visited Caracas in hopes of establishing a hemispheric free-trade zone.[10] At the time this meeting occurred, Venezuela was still reeling from the collapse of its banking system in 1994, and the country had been leaning to the political left since the election of the explicitly anti-neoliberal president, Rafael Caldera, in 1993.[11] However, the evidence seems to indicate that the meeting between the two heads of states was amicable and productive. At the conclusion of the meeting, both leaders renewed commitments to seek a hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005, promote human rights, collaborate to counter criminal and terrorist threats abroad, and cooperate on weapons of mass destruction non-proliferation efforts.[12]

There is even evidence that the Clinton administration wanted to maintain a relationship with Venezuela after the election of Chavez, as was evident in 1999 when the two countries collaborated on taxation laws to avoid double taxation and deter fiscal evasion.[13] While it could be argued that this last example, tax law, was a vestigial remnant of a project worked on prior to the election of Chavez—it was signed in Caracas just days before Chavez took office and Clinton pushed it to the Senate for approval in June of 1999—it still represented a willingness by the Clinton administration to continue the progress made between the U.S. and Venezuela.[14] In the opening months of his administration, Chavez also seemed open to pragmatic dealings with capitalist markets and the U.S. as a whole.[15] Perhaps the best symbolic representation of Chavez’s own willingness to cooperate with a capitalist government was when he rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange in 1999.[16] Despite Chavez’s opposition to the aforementioned hemispheric free-trade zones, the U.S. and Venezuela would maintain a cautious but relatively cordial relationship during what was called Chavez’s “Moderate Stage” from 1999 until November of 2001.[17] 

Orlando Castro-Llanes with President Bill Clinton (Alchetron)

Orlando Castro-Llanes with President Bill Clinton (Alchetron)

While this evidence suggests that Clinton wanted to continue a relationship with Venezuela after the election of Chavez, his objectives could have been frustrated by ties between Clinton’s presidential campaign and a prominent Venezuelan banking family. In 1998, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives launched an investigation into the possible influence $50,000 in illegal Venezuelan contributions to the 1992 Clinton campaign had on the Clinton administration and why the Department of Justice failed to prosecute the case.[18] The contributions in question were linked to Orlando Castro-Llanes, a prominent Cuban-born Venezuelan banker and convicted money-launderer.[19] Castro-Llanes had previously been in charge of one of the largest banks in Venezuela, El Banco de Venezuela.[20] However, when the Venezuelan banking system collapsed in 1994, Castro-Llanes fled to the U.S. to avoid charges of bank fraud in Venezuela.[21] While it could be argued that this Congressional investigation was largely a political tool to weaken the Democratic president—the congressional transcript is rife with accusatory and partisan language—this argument does not negate the fact that there was a link that could be made between President Clinton and Castro-Llanes.[22] It would not have been difficult for Chavez, who was highly influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and other left-wing thinkers, to use Castro’s connection to the U.S. president as evidence in his own mind that the Clinton administration’s relative amicability was a front for its true underlying support for the corrupt old guard of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie that Chavez fought to overthrow.[23] In other words, a paradox existed between the Clinton administration’s desire for cooperation with a leftist Venezuelan administration and links Clinton had to the Venezuelan right.

Suspicions Chavez had of the U.S. government were almost immediately manifested as the Bush administration took control of the White House in 2001. Chavez’s period of political moderation came to an abrupt halt in November of 2001, as he enacted 49 laws with the intention of reversing neoliberal reform trends of the 1990s.[24] Shortly thereafter, in April of 2002, growing dissatisfaction with Chavez's management of the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, caused the labor unions to organize a general strike.[25] This strike was followed by a successful coup to eject Chavez from office, but it was a short-lived affair that was quickly undone by counter-coup military forces.[26] Forty-eight hours after being removed from office, Chavez returned to Miraflores, the presidential office building, and resumed control.[27] The Bush administration’s reaction to the coup was cold, as it blamed Chavez’s oppressive methods for the outbreak of violence and offered no conciliatory remarks. [28] The Bush administration’s stance on the coup stood in stark contrast to the otherwise unanimous hemispheric consensus which condemned the overthrow of a democratically elected leader.[29] Upon his return to Miraflores, Chavez commenced making accusations that the U.S. was behind both the coup and an alleged assassination attempt against him that had occurred four months prior.[30] 

It was clear that Bush and Chavez were not going to have an amicable relationship, and it appeared as if the Bush administration had never wanted one in the first place. After the coup, it was acknowledged that, months prior, a group of senior members of the Bush administration and U.S. military leaders met with members of an anti-Chavez opposition party in Washington D.C.[31] According to the U.S. officials, the U.S. members present in the talks did not encourage a coup, but rather urged the opposition group to utilize the constitutional process to remove Chavez from power.[32] In an effort to emphasize the innocent hand the U.S. played in the coup, one senior official of the Bush administration stated, “We didn’t even wink.”[33] However, a statement from a Department of Defense official left more room for interpretation: “We were not discouraging people…We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy [Chavez]…We didn't say, 'No, don't you dare,' and we weren't advocates saying, 'Here's some arms; we'll help you overthrow this guy.' We were not doing that.''[34]  Responses such as the previous two were not enough to placate furious rights groups and Latin American diplomats, who accused the U.S. of turning a blind eye to the coup.[35] In essence, the lack of U.S. advisors in, arms provided for, or explicit endorsement of the coup was not enough to claim that the U.S. did not have a role. The U.S. fingerprints were on the design, and this evidence in combination with the historical record of U.S. intervention in Latin America was ample proof to Chavez that the U.S. was an existential threat to his administration.

The reasons behind this new U.S. hostility toward Chavez can best be described as a byproduct of the Bush Doctrine in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but the benefit such an aggressive strategy would have towards U.S. foreign policy and security in Latin America is still unclear. According to political scientist and Latin American specialist Gary Prevost, the Bush doctrine permitted “a preemptive war against potential aggressors before they are capable of mounting an attack against the United States.”[36] Prior to the coup, Chavez had been critical of the U.S. and had also assumed a “pro-Cuban stance.”[37] Both of these aforementioned provocations would have been irritating to the U.S. However, neither action indicated that there was a risk of attack perpetrated or supported by Venezuela on the U.S. that would have merited preemptive action supported by the Bush Doctrine.[38] Additionally, if the U.S. wanted to silence Chavez’s criticisms to improve Latin American perception of the U.S., then the meeting had quite the opposite effect since it brought condemnation from regional partners.[39] An economic argument also seems weak, given the fact that Venezuela was the “third-largest foreign supplier of U.S. oil” and Chavez had not yet threatened this trade relationship.[40] Finally, the argument that Chavez was undermining democracy also seems porous, as Chavez had won the presidency in elections that were declared to be fully legitimate by international observers.[41]

Image from the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (Telesur)

Ultimately, the coup of 2002 was the seminal event that led to the collapse of U.S. Venezuelan relations through present day. After 2002, U.S.-Venezuelan relations worsened.[42] Eventually, plummeting oil prices and increasing paranoia of further insurrection would lead Chavez to take draconian economic and social measures that would cause Venezuela’s economic collapse and give rise to Orwellian state controls of society.[43]

It is important to mention that there could be a very valid argument the Bush administration had for the meeting with the anti-Chavez officials and for America’s unsympathetic response to the coup. Documents from this era have yet to be declassified and not all knowledge may be accessible in the public domain. If, in fact, Chavez had been harboring terrorists or did pose some credible threat to U.S. security, then the Bush administration’s response may have been warranted.

The existence of a valid counter-argument would not change the three important lessons learned from the Clinton-Bush era. First, any amount of government interaction with foreign actors is an extension of a state’s foreign policy, as interaction signals bias. Both Castro-Llanes’ contributions to Clinton’s campaign and the Bush administration’s meetings with the anti-Chavez representatives signaled discord between the administrations of both U.S. presidents and Chavez. Second, the historical memory of U.S. intervention in Latin America is strong in the minds of Latin American leaders. This explains why any involvement the U.S. had in supporting a coup was regarded with the utmost gravity by the regional powers. Third, in Latin America it is not possible for the U.S. to partially back a coup. Any level of U.S. involvement will be viewed as culpability. Hence, the choice to support a Latin American coup is binary: completely desist or commit to the coup ready to accept the potential international backlash that results. The latter option does not guarantee the accomplishment of larger U.S. political objectives—as was demonstrated by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.[44]

An analysis of U.S.-Venezuelan relations through the Clinton and Bush administrations reveals that anti-Chavez bias was present in both administrations. However, during the 2002 coup against Chavez, the Bush administration kept its anti-Chavez bias but did not want to accept responsibility for backing the coup. The result of this strategic waffling was the meeting with the anti-Chavez representatives that yielded neither longer term decisive change in Venezuelan politics nor a verisimilitude of U.S. neutrality. Furthermore, no evidence is available in the public domain to prove that the U.S. had a strategic objective in supporting the coup. Hence, in the case of the 2002 coup, it is highly likely that self-restraint and neutrality would have provided greater utility to the U.S over the long term. However, if there was a credible threat during this time period, then a more forceful response should have been applied to ensure the complete permanent incapacitation of the Chavez regime—to weakly back an overthrow only increases the likelihood of failure and the inheritance of a more resolute enemy. Going forward, the U.S. should take heed to understand how qualities of temperance, diplomatic tact, and moderation can yield far more productive relationships in Latin America, but if national U.S. consensus chooses to eschew the aforementioned qualities for more belligerent ones, such as a backing a coup, then the U.S. should understand how Latin American historical memory magnifies the consequences and execute a decisive strategy around this understanding.

Justin Hauffe is a student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and is pursuing a degree in National Security Affairs with a focus on the Western Hemisphere. Through the U.S. Air Force’s Foreign Area Officer Fellowship he has studied in Panama and Chile and worked for the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: The U.S. and Venezuelan Flags (Caracas Chronicle)


[1] Robert Rapier, “Charting The Decline Of Venezuela’s Oil Industry,” Forbes, accessed March 9, 2019,; Andrew Glass, “Bill Clinton’s Impeachment Trial Ends, Feb. 12, 1999,” POLITICO, accessed March 9, 2019,

[2] Tim Weiner, “A Coup by Any Other Name,” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast); New York, N.Y., April 14, 2002, sec. 4; David Ho, “Chavez to U.N.: Bush Is Devil: Venezuelan President Warns That U.S. Seeks World Domination: [Main Edition],” The Atlanta Journal - Constitution; Atlanta, Ga., September 21, 2006, sec. News.

[3] Steve Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner, 2008), 91.

[4] Ellner, 92.

[5] Ellner, 93.

[6] Ellner, 94.

[7] Ellner, 94.

[8] Ellner, 94–96.

[9] Rapier, “Charting The Decline Of Venezuela’s Oil Industry;” “In Venezuela, Clinton Promotes Hemisphere Trade Zone,” The New York Times, October 13, 1997,

[10] “In Venezuela, Clinton Promotes Hemisphere Trade Zone.”

[11] “In Venezuela, Clinton Promotes Hemisphere Trade Zone;” Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, 98.

[12] “Declaration of the Presidents of the United States of America and of the Republic of Venezuela. (Bill Clinton and Rafael Caldera)(Transcript),” Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, 1997.

[13] Venezuela, Tax Convention with Venezuela: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting the Convention between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Venezuela for the Avoidance of Double Taxation and the Prevention of Fiscal Evasion with Respect to Taxes on Income and Capital, Signed at Caracas on January 25, 1999., Treaty Doc. ; 106-3 (Washington: USGPO, 1999), 2.

[14] Venezuela, 2.

[15] Peter Millard et al., “The Rise and Fall of Chavismo in Venezuela,” accessed March 11, 2019,

[16] Millard et al.

[17] Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, 110–12.

[18] United States. Congress. House. Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Venezuelan Money and the Presidential Election: Hearing before the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifth Congress, Second Session, April 30, 1998. (Washington: USGPO, 1998), 1.

[19] “Ex-Prosecutor Linked to Alleged Obstruction Effort,” Washington Post, September 16, 1999,

[20] Micah Morrison, “Drugs, Money, Justice,” Wall Street Journal (1923 - Current File); New York, N.Y., September 17, 1998.

[21] Morrison.

[22] United States. Congress. House. Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, Venezuelan Money and the Presidential Election.

[23] Rory Carroll, Comandante: Myth and Reality in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela (Penguin Press: New York, 2013), 27, 88.

[24] Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, 112.

[25] Millard et al., “The Rise and Fall of Chavismo in Venezuela.”

[26] Millard et al.

[27] Alex Bellos and South America correspondent, “Chavez Rises from Very Peculiar Coup,” The Guardian, April 15, 2002, sec. World news,

[28] “Chavez Raises Idea Of U.S. Role in Coup,” Washington Post, May 5, 2002,

[29] Christopher Marquis, “Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader,” The New York Times, April 16, 2002, sec. World,

[30] “Chavez Raises Idea Of U.S. Role in Coup.”

[31] “Chavez Raises Idea Of U.S. Role in Coup.”

[32] “Chavez Raises Idea Of U.S. Role in Coup.”

[33] Marquis, “Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader.”

[34] Marquis.

[35] Marquis.

[36] “The Bush Doctrine and Latin America | SpringerLink,” 1, accessed March 12, 2019,

[37] Marquis, “Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader.”

[38] “The Bush Doctrine and Latin America | SpringerLink,” 3.

[39] Marquis, “Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader.”

[40] Marquis.

[41] “The Bush Doctrine and Latin America | SpringerLink,” 3.

[42] Millard et al., “The Rise and Fall of Chavismo in Venezuela.”

[43] Millard et al.

[44] Peter H. Smith, Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World, Fourth edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 176.