- - Thursday, December 29, 2016

BUENOS AIRES — It was a stark illustration of how far Venezuela’s stock has fallen in the neighborhood as its leftist government deals with economic calamity and political instability.

In an incident that generated headlines here, uninvited Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez tried to crash a major trade summit at the Argentine Foreign Ministry building this month, scuffling with security personnel and threatening at one point to come in through a window if she was blocked. She demanded a seat at the meeting of Mercosur trade bloc members, even though the group had ousted Venezuela days earlier.

The bizarre confrontation outside the San Martin Palace is seen by many as a sign of desperation amid Caracas’ growing isolation within the region, where political winds have shifted strongly against President Nicolas Maduro.

The center-right leaders of Argentina and Brazil, Mauricio Macri and Michel Temer, respectively, quickly overturned their leftist predecessors and all but assigned pariah status to their Venezuelan counterpart.

Mr. Macri this year accused Mr. Maduro of causing “famine and abandonment” while having “violated all human rights.”



Venezuela’s embattled president has responded with epithets including “political hit man” and “dummy of imperialism.”

The feud escalated this year when Mr. Macri and Mr. Temer blocked Caracas from assuming the rotating presidency of Mercosur, South America’s biggest trading bloc, and, citing failure to implement trade rules and to uphold democratic standards, suspended the country from the five-member group on Dec. 2.

As a consequence, the Venezuelan foreign minister was told repeatedly, “verbally and in writing,” that she was unwelcome at the meeting of her counterparts, at which Buenos Aires took Caracas’ leadership role, Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra said.

But Ms. Rodriguez showed up anyway, sparking the undiplomatic diplomatic standoff. Eventually, she was allowed into the building, where Ms. Malcorra improvised an impromptu, hourlong encounter along with her counterparts Rodolfo Nin Novoa of Uruguay and David Choquehuanca of Bolivia.

“We explained to the foreign minister of Venezuela that her country was not invited because it had been suspended,” Ms. Malcorra said later. “We were talking in circles: I told her that I had to leave for the Mercosur meeting, and she wanted to come along.”

Along with the diplomatic fracas, economic news out of Venezuela is almost uniformly negative. The International Monetary Fund estimates that national output shrank 8 percent in 2016 and inflation was almost 500 percent. Toward the end of the year, the bolivar weakened some 60 percent to more than 4,000 to the dollar on the black market. The failure of world oil prices to rebound has undercut the one source of revenue that underwrote the socialist government’s populist policies.

Politics is also frozen, with the Maduro government deeply unpopular but the opposition blocked by the courts from a bid to impeach the president. Elections for governors this month have been postponed, and Mr. Maduro or one of his allies is expected to be able to hold on to the presidency until his term formally ends in January 2019.

The Financial Times, in an editorial this week, suggested that the best short-term economic remedy for the country could be to provide safe passage for Mr. Maduro and his allies to a third country to end the gridlock in Caracas and allow for a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition.

Divided Venezuela

The incident at the Mercosur meeting caused strong partisan reactions in Venezuela, where backers of Mr. Maduro’s government praised Ms. Rodriguez as a national heroine while the president, speaking at a summit of leftist leaders in Havana, decried the Argentine government’s “cowardice against this worthy woman.”

The Venezuelan opposition, meanwhile, countered that the scene only underscored the autocratic regime’s ineptitude on the international stage along with its inability to follow even the most basic rules of the political game, said Richard Arteaga, a member of longtime opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ Justice First party.

“This was a show. In the world of diplomacy, things don’t get worked out this way,” said Mr. Arteaga, who served on the Mercosur parliament in Montevideo before he was elected to the National Assembly. Former populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez “used to say, ‘Governments move from summit to summit.’ This government moves from show to show.”

Venezuela’s growing isolation spells an end to Chavez’s dreams of a “continental project” while focusing an even harsher light on the country’s dire situation amid a social and economic meltdown, the lawmaker said.

“What happened to the foreign minister is the result of policies,” Mr. Arteaga said. “I feel very ashamed that we are taking part in international affairs [in this way].”

Christine Balling, a senior fellow for Latin American affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, argued that there may be a method to the madness as Mr. Maduro and Ms. Rodriguez try to deal with their country’s multiple crises. Making a show of strength also helps the embattled president rally his shrinking base, Ms. Balling said.

“What seems to be irrational and crazy behavior from the American perspective is a very strong propaganda tool for the Maduro regime. It makes headlines,” Ms. Balling said. “[And] this press attention deflects from the absolute misery in the country.”

But the strategy could backfire if taken too far, alienating Mr. Maduro’s dwindling band of leftist allies such as outgoing Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Bolivian President Evo Morales.

“He’s behaving like somewhat of an unruly, petulant child,” she said. “That’s beginning to embarrass other left-leaning governments in the area.”

Venezuela’s Mercosur ouster, which could be permanent, is just the latest blow to its oil-based economy, already beset by runaway inflation and consumer good shortages, said Alejandro Grisanti, head of research and strategy for Latin America at Barclays Capital.

In the long run, he said, it may even help lead the country to return to the Andean Community, which Mr. Chavez scrapped in favor of Mercosur in 2006 but which many economists consider a better fit for Venezuela.

For now, the country’s increasing isolation further diminishes hopes that the Maduro government will be able to dig itself out of the hole anytime soon, Mr. Grisanti said.

“I believe the principal effect [of the suspension] is political,” he said. “In effect, Venezuela is a country that has left all good manners behind. Venezuela destroyed confidence a long time ago.”

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