Center for Strategic Communication

By Matthew Morris

In early March, President Bush embarked on a five-nation tour of Latin American with the goal of advancing America’s image in the region. According to the White House website, the message of this tour was clear:

The President Is Committed To Helping Democracies In The Western Hemisphere:

  • Build government institutions that are fair, effective, and free of corruption;
  • Meet basic needs like education, healthcare, and housing; and
  • Maintain economies that make it possible for workers to provide for their families and rise in society.

Bush’s visit focused on introducing initiatives in strategically important countries in the region that emphasize America’s positive role in supporting democracy and working to reduce poverty. In Brazil, Bush and Brazilian president Lula convened a press conference to announce an agreement to increase cooperation in the development of biofuels such as ethanol. Bush appeared with the presidents of Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico to introduce similar cooperative measures. The visit was part of a larger effort to engage a region that critics say the administration has neglected during the Global War on Terror.

Bush’s tour was complicated by the competing tour of one of the administration’s harshest critics, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Chavez toured the region at the same time as Bush, visiting countries not on Bush’s itinerary and introducing his own agreements with those countries’ leaders, while also taking the opportunity to lead rallies against Bush. However, despite Chavez’s persistent taunting of the president, Bush refused to acknowledge Chavez during his trip.


Bush used a common debating tactic in his refusal to mention the name of his primary adversary in the region. Rather than humanize an opponent by using their proper name, debaters will often refer to them with the formula “my opponent” or refuse to acknowledge them at all. In these cases, recognizing an adversary, or “sanctioning the devil” as it is commonly called, is believed to lend credibility to the other side, while denial of the opponent indicates an attitude that their arguments are not even worthy of consideration. Because the Bush tour was focused on promoting the US image in South America, to acknowledge Chavez would presumably distract the public from the message of American solidarity with the region.

Communication scientists have done studies that reveal a potential flaw in this type of strategy. Allen et al (1990) conducted a meta-analysis of how message sidedness affected persuasive outcomes by distinguishing between one-sided, two-sided and two-sided refutational message strategies. One-sided messages, such as that illustrated by the Bush strategy during the Latin American trip, convey the type of unified message that Allen and his colleagues found to be more effective than message strategies that simply acknowledge an opponent’s position. However, Allen el al found that the most persuasive messages are those that include both acknowledgement and refutation of oppositional views. Presumably two-sided refutational messages are most effective because, unlike one-sided message strategies that do not take into account other possible interpretations and non-refutational two-sided messages that allow oppositional interpretations to remain unchallenged, these more complex arguments give reasons why the position advocated is superior to alternatives.


Multiple interpretations to a single message can be understood through the pragmatic complexity model of communication. As an alternative to the older transmission model of communication (Source -> Message -> Audience), the model of pragmatic complexity draws on systems theory to explain how communicative success is dependent on a number of factors, not simply the skill of the communicators. Whereas the traditional model encourages repetition of the same simple message, this model requires diverse methods, messages modified for context and audience, experimentation, and an expectation of communicative failure. Put simply: Repeating an unsuccessful message does nothing more than breed repetitive failure to communicate.


Bush’s denial of Chavez during his Latin American tour is consistent with the administration’s attitude that giving credence to many of their opponents would constitute “rewarding bad behavior.” However, one has only to look as far as Cuba to see not only a model of Chavez’s form of government but also a model of a failed policy of “sanctioning the devil,” where the decades-long embargo has failed to topple the Castro government. Fortunately, relations with Venezuela have not yet deteriorated to that extent, and opportunities exist for engagement with the Chavez government which may offer additional benefits.

The success of American engagement with South America rests on following up this visit with further initiatives that reinforce our commitment to the region, with an emphasis on refutation of oppositional positions. U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s planned trip to Latin America is one such opportunity to continue this focus on cooperation with Latin America. Additionally, collaboration with Brazil provides support to counterbalance Chavez’s influence in the region. History shows that a strategy of triangulation can be effective in defusing tensions with a similar socialist adversary. Henry Kissinger’s strategy of détente with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev during the height of the Cold War was especially effective because of Nixon’s simultaneous engagement with China. Despite adversarial rhetoric on both sides during the Cold War, America’s ability to negotiate with communist countries helped to bring about the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union and the modernization of China. Combined with closer relations with Brazil, there is a potential that engagement with Venezuela may open doors to solutions of other major conflicts around the world.

Chavez has relationships with some of America’s primary adversaries on the world stage, including North Korea and Iran. The CSC has already released a white paper about the Iranian letter to President Bush advising that we modify our communicative strategies in dealing with Iranian president Ahmadinejad and adapt our public diplomacy to engage with these opportunities for discussion despite the clear differences in the approach to diplomacy. A better relationship with Venezuela may open up new channels for communication with these other countries.

Reshaping America’s image abroad requires more than simply repeating positive messages about America, because these messages allow for undesired interpretations. One-sided message strategies can be spun as avoidance by adversaries of American policy. Perhaps Chavez drew inspiration for his challenge to Bush from Ahmadinejad’s unanswered call for a debate between the Iranian leader and Bush. Chavez knew that Bush would not allow himself to be dragged into a name-calling session, so Chavez was able to use this expectation to reinforce his counter-message to American openness and freedom of speech. If someone like Condoleezza Rice, who inspires less personal hate from Chavez, would answer the call to debate, it would not only disrupt expectations but also create new channels for communication between the two countries. This type of debate would give U.S. leaders an opportunity to directly refute the arguments against America and create a more persuasive positive image.

The primary obstacle we face in dealing with Venezuela is Chavez’s animosity towards President Bush. In a recent interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, Chavez said that his problem isn’t with America, but with Bush himself. However, he also indicated a willingness to apologize for past name-calling. Another insight gained by ABC’s David Puente, who interviewed Chavez’s psychiatrist, may shed light on Chavez’s often irrational behavior: he suffers from bipolar disorder. Debating with an irrational person may have its risks, but a public debate would expose his irrationality on an international stage.

The influence Chavez has in the region cannot be ignored. A strategy of simple pro-U.S. messages does not address the diverse experiences of the people in the region. Opening communication channels and experimenting with different messages is a better approach. Our continued relations with Venezuela, combined with Chavez’s willingness to admit his own mistakes, mean that we may still have an opportunity to mend relations with the Venezuelan leader, so long as he stays on his medication.

Further Reading

  • Allen, M. A., Hale, J. L., Mongeau, P. A., Berkowitz-Stafford, S., Stafford, S., Shanahan, W., et al. (1990). Testing a model of message sidedness: Three replications. Communication Monographs, 57, 275-291.