Now that Venezuela's larger-than-life Hugo Chávez has vanished from the political landscape, what does the future hold for South America? Though Venezuela is only a medium-sized country, Chávez was able to skillfully realign geopolitical fault lines through shrewd use of oil largesse and petro populism. It is unlikely, though, that uncharismatic Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro, who only won his country's recent presidential election by the slightest of margins, will be as successful as his mentor in maintaining Venezuela's carefully crafted system of regional alliances. As Venezuela fades, Brazil will naturally assume a greater leadership role, thus paving the path for a somewhat unusual three-way contest between the two South American countries and the United States. Just what form, precisely, is such competition likely to take and where are new geopolitical rivalries going to be most acutely felt? For answers, look to Brazil "buffer state" Uruguay, a country rife with diplomatic intrigue.
Venezuela: Last Hurrah in Southern Cone?
Feeling threatened and diminished by recent political reversals, Maduro is doing his utmost to shore up alliances in the Southern Cone. Shortly after his election, the Venezuelan traveled to Uruguay, a small nation in the region sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil. Historically, Chávez enjoyed warm ties to Montevideo where former Tupamaro guerrillas hold sway within the leftist Broad Front or Frente Amplio. In 2005, Uruguay turned to Chávez in an effort to secure vital energy resources from Venezuela. The populist leader from Caracas was all too willing to oblige, sending oil to Uruguay on preferential terms in exchange for meat and milk. The ailing Chávez also apparently hoped that Caracas and Montevideo might consolidate military ties: last year, over 200 Venezuelan military personnel traveled to Uruguay to participate in joint exercises.
During his visit to Montevideo, Maduro signed nine bilateral agreements and strengthened ties in the energy, trade and agribusiness fields. Hoping to build upon Chávez's oil largesse, Maduro promised Uruguay a "permanent supply of petroleum." Maduro also wants to tie the José Mujica government into the left-leaning ALBA alliance and specifically Venezuela's alternative currency, the Sucre. Before he died, Chávez touted the Sucre, which is not a real currency but serves as a "virtual" means of commercial exchange between politically aligned countries throughout the wider region. In yet another nod to Chávez, who frequently pursued links to South American social movements, Maduro met with Uruguayan organized labor at a local "recovered" factory.
Despite this warm reception, not all sectors of Uruguayan society were equally enthusiastic about Maduro's trip, and indeed Venezuela might encounter some political difficulties ahead. Take, for example, the conservative National Party, which railed that Maduro sought to "buy legitimacy" in Uruguay. The Montevideo government, the party argued, ought to "defend democracy."
Uruguay's Precarious Situation
In addition to the Uruguayan right, Maduro must also contend with a rather opportunistic political left which might be prepared to sacrifice wider South American unity in the interest of furthering ties to Washington. Indeed, sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks highlight the Broad Front's double dealing. During the Bush administration, for example, the Broad Front even flirted with the notion of signing a free trade agreement with Washington which would have jeopardized economic integration within Mercosur, a South American trade bloc featuring Venezuela amongst others.
At one point, the Uruguayan Minister of Industry and Energy even told the Americans behind closed doors that President Tabaré Vázquez, Mujica's predecessor, knew "how to manage the radicals within the governing Frente Amplio coalition." Sometimes, the minister added, Vázquez needed to "placate that crowd," but rest assured internal politics would "have little effect on his [the president's] foreign policy overtures towards the United States."
Though Mujica has stated that he will "fight to the death" to preserve Mercosur, significant South American economic fissures remain and the U.S. could exploit such vulnerabilities. Indeed, trade has been decreasing within Mercosur and some uncertainty hangs over the future of the trade bloc. Faced with such developments, even Mújica has admitted that Mercosur is "stalled" and "suspended in time." Sensing Uruguay's precarious situation, the U.S. Ambassor in Montevideo has stated that she still supports the idea of concluding a free trade agreement with the Mujica government.
In other respects, too, Washington seems to be exploiting divisions in the Southern Cone and the fluid state of politics in Uruguay. Hardly deterred by Venezuelan military intrigues, the Pentagon has been pressuring Montevideo to set up separate exchanges with the United States. According to an interesting article in the Uruguayan press, the Pentagon in fact sought approval to establish a military training center in the central town of Durazno. Reportedly, the installation would have trained Uruguayan soldiers participating in peace keeping operations.
Apparently, the Pentagon's offer gave rise to significant political disagreement within Uruguay with some factions of the armed forces agreeing with the proposal and other members of the top military brass rejecting collaboration. "Politically," one military official remarked, "it is not acceptable that an American center be installed on a Uruguayan base." When Montevideo ultimately rejected the Pentagon's proposal, the Obama administration reportedly grew irritated with the Mujica government. One U.S. diplomatic official based in Uruguay expressed "frustration" that Montevideo "maintains a suspicious attitude" toward Washington.
Despite such reversals, the U.S. Defense establishment has been somewhat successful in spearheading a certain degree of joint collaboration. Last year, in fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration opened an office in Montevideo and Defense Secretary Panetta traveled to Uruguay to shore up ties. Meanwhile, members of the Uruguayan air force have traveled to the U.S. for training. In an article posted on the U.S. Air Force's web site, one Lieutenant Colonel attached to the American Embassy in Montevideo remarked that "Our mission in Uruguay is to help grow the nation's capabilities, security and stability. We also want to promote U.S. interests, provide humanitarian assistance and counter drug trafficking."
The "Surprising and Strange" Deployment of U.S. Navy Seals
In another PR victory for the Pentagon, a team of U.S. Navy Seals was recently dispatched to Uruguay. Ostensibly, the 15 elite Seals went to Uruguay to train local Navy officers how to intercept suspicious vessels linked to terrorism and drug trafficking. Jettisoning their anti-imperialist credentials, all Broad Front legislators in both houses of Parliament approved the deployment. In a snub of fellow leftist governments in the region, Uruguay failed to inform the South American Council of Defense in advance of the Navy Seal deployment. Uruguay is a member of the Council, which helps to foster wider political integration in South America.
Meanwhile, some sectors of Uruguayan political society expressed concern with the Seal deployment. Take for example grassroots activists within the Broad Front, who demanded that party leadership divulge more information about the Navy Seal deployment. Fearing a public relations backlash, the Ministry of Defense prohibited the media from covering maneuvers and refused to grant any interviews on the matter.
The irony of perhaps the most lethal military team in the U.S. arsenal setting up shop in Uruguay, a country run by former leftist guerrillas, was not lost on domestic media. On local television, one commentator reported that the Seals had collaborated with the CIA and previously operated in such theaters as Panama, Vietnam and Nicaragua during the Contra War against the Sandinistas. The commentator wondered how a progressive government could get mixed up with the Seals, adding that the deployment was all rather "surprising and strange."
Venezuela, which has had its own military exchanges with Uruguay, is presumably none too pleased by news of the U.S. Navy Seal deployment. Perhaps a more interesting question, however, is what Brasilia makes of such developments just across the border. Traditionally, Brazil has enjoyed a large degree of economic influence in Uruguay, particularly in the agricultural sector. Many Brazilian families have even moved to Uruguay to become rice farmers and control large swathes of land. Meanwhile, Brazilian cash fuels the Uruguayan financial sector.
Hoping to shore up ties, and perhaps ward off Venezuela and the U.S., Brasilia has conducted a charm offensive toward Montevideo. Recently, Uruguay and Brazil signed bilateral agreements in such areas as science, technology, energy and transportation. Furthermore, both countries hope to encourage free circulation of peoples, goods and services. By 2014, Brazil and Uruguay aspire to completely open their common border. In the military realm meanwhile, the two countries have carried out joint naval exercises.
South America's Future
Brazil's economic might is certainly impressive, but one key question moving forward is whether the large South American giant is prepared to also exercise political pressure in its immediate hinterland. In the recent historic past, Brazil has been wary of meddling in other nations' sovereign affairs. Nevertheless, with competing powers vying for influence in its own back yard, Brazil may be tempted to push back.
Perhaps, Venezuela will hold on to a degree of its geopolitical influence in the Southern Cone, though with Chávez gone from the scene it is unlikely that Caracas will be seen as a truly significant player in the neighborhood. That leaves open the possibility that buffer states like Uruguay could become the scene of increased diplomatic intrigue between the two main powers, Brazil and the United States. So far, Brasilia has been careful not to upset the Obama administration, preferring instead to pursue a kind of "under the radar" diplomatic strategy. As the U.S. stages something of a comeback in South America, however, Brazil may wonder whether the time has come to assert itself more aggressively.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.