Diplomatic Pouch / April 24, 2014
By Larry Luxner
One year after Nicolás Maduro’s election as president of Venezuela — in a voting process the opposition claims was rigged and illegal — the hand-picked successor to the late populist Hugo Chávez faces a country in chaos.
Riots and street clashes between chavistas and government opponents have killed at least 41 people over the last two months. Venezuela’s homicide rate is now among the world’s highest, inflation continues unchecked and shortages are so bad in this oil-exporting nation that even toilet paper is in desperately short supply.
“Venezuela is a mess,” said Russell M. Dallen Jr., president and editor-in-chief of the Latin American Herald Tribune. “It’s pretty much goes back to what happened a year ago at this time: the election of Maduro. The difference in the amount of votes was less than 250,000 out of 19 million. Members of the opposition had doubts about the election and pressed for an audit, but they didn’t get it.”
Dallen was one of three speakers at an Apr. 9 forum on Venezuela hosted by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. The others were Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, and John Maisto, a former U.S. ambassador to both Venezuela and the Organization of American States (OAS).
By coincidence, the panel took place the same day Maduro joined in a televised dialogue with Henrique Capriles and 10 other opposition leaders under the sponsorship of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and the Vatican. While such dialogue is encouraging, few Venezuela-watchers expect the country’s crisis to be resolved anytime soon.
“They’re locked into a situation where, for better or worse, they have a bad bus driver, and they’re about to drive off a cliff,” quipped Dallen — a not-so-subtle reference to Maduro, who drove a bus before entering politics and becoming an ally of Chávez.
The publisher told his audience of about 40 people that “questionable acts” took place in at least 28 precincts on Apr. 14, 2013 — the day Venezuelans went to the polls to replace Chávez, who had died of cancer in March at the age of 58. Chávez had been in power for 14 years, longer than any Venezuelan head of state in recent memory.
“There were some [polling centers] where 100 percent of the people voted, and 100 percent of the votes went to Maduro,” said the professor, “so the opposition quietly went back to work, and the situation continued to deteriorate.”
Corrales, who’s written several books about Venezuela, says there are actually four crises taking place simultaneously.
“First, this country is suffering the consequences of a severe economic crisis, and secondly, the adjustment has some very strong populist elements. They’re not only cutting the deficit but also resorting to price controls. This only produces scarcity,” he told said. “Third, we’re seeing a crisis in foreign policy — something we haven’t seen since the Central American wars [of the 1980s], and finally, the chavista government for the first time finds itself with a very damaged international reputation.”
As long as Chávez was in power, said Corrales, the government had no intention of easing up on its populist agenda — but with the economy falling apart around him, Maduro suddenly realizes he will have to negotiate with his enemies.
Officially, Dallen said, Venezuela’s inflation rate is 57 percent, but the real number is much worse — with the black-market rate of the bolívar dropping to 88 to the dollar at one point before settling at the current 68 to the dollar (that compares to the official rate of 6.3 to the dollar).
“To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, it was a very bad year,” said Maisto. “A bad year for the government. A bad year for human rights. A bad year for the economy. A bad year for diplomacy. The opposition did not have a very good year either after its remarkable showing in the election, but all things considered, it’s come out better [than the government]. I think there’s a glimmer of hope.”
Notably, the dialogue is being boycotted by prominent congresswoman María Corina Machado, who’s protesting the jailing of fellow opposition lawmaker Leopoldo López. The 42-year-old Harvard-educated mayor of an upscale suburb of Caracas was arrested Feb. 18 on charges of inciting violence and other offenses. Also behind bars is Daniel Ceballos, the mayor of San Cristobál, where opposition to Maduro also runs high.
“Venezuela is not just a petro-state but also a narco-state,” said Corrales, though he added that “the reason there’s an opportunity for negotiations at this point is because other aspects of the regime are crumbling.”
Notably, not a single Venezuelan Embassy openly attended the AS-COA meeting — a reflection of the dismal relations between Washington and Caracas. Venezuela hasn’t had an ambassador here since the December 2010 expulsion of Bernardo Álvarez Herrera, which itself followed the Chávez government’s refusal to accept the nomination of Larry Palmer as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.
Maisto, who held that position from 1997 to 2000, cautioned that “as long as the price of oil is around $100 a barrel, Venezuela has much more to play with than any other country. It could have the worst-functioning economy in the history of Latin America, but they still have a lot of money to spend.”
Even so, he advised, imposing U.S. sanctions against top Venezuelan officials and refusing to give them visas makes no sense.
“My own view of dealing with Venezuela goes back to Theodore Roosevelt: speak softly and carry lots of big sticks. Just having the sticks makes people stop and think. The notion that outsiders including the United States can solve the Venezuelan problem is folly. The Venezuelans got themselves into this in 1998. It was a free and fair election, and 57 percent of them voted for Hugo Chávez.”
The retired diplomat also criticized OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza for not upholding more forcefully the rights of anti-Maduro protesters in Venezuela.
“I would like to see the OAS be more supportive,” Maisto said. “I do not like the notion of giving moral equivalence to the government and the opposition. The secretary-general did that. I think that’s wrong, and I will tell him so the next time I see him.”