- - Sunday, July 16, 2017

During his 14 years in power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proved a master at prodding infighting amid his country’s pesky but fractured opposition — a “divide and conquer” strategy apparently not lost on his embattled successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Unlike Chavez, Mr. Maduro no longer is battling for the hearts and minds of Venezuelans, the vast majority of whom blame him for an unprecedented economic and social meltdown. Rather, he has driven a wedge between other countries in the region, thus preventing any meaningful call or action to oust his regime.

However, thousands of Venezuelans lined up Sunday across the country to vote in a symbolic rejection of Mr. Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution, a proposal that is escalating tensions in a nation stricken by widespread shortages and more than 100 days of anti-government protests.

In what appeared to be smaller numbers in many parts of the capital, government supporters went to polling stations in a rehearsal for a July 30 vote to elect members of the assembly that will retool Venezuela’s 1999 constitution.

The opposition says the vote has been structured to pack the constitutional assembly with government supporters and allow Mr. Maduro to eliminate the few remaining checks on his power, creating a Cuba-style system dominated by his socialist party.

Last month, the efficacy of Mr. Maduro’s wedge approach in dealing with regional neighbors was on display: Even as he bulldozed what little was left of rule of law in Venezuela and the death toll at anti-government protests topped 70, the Organization of American States’ General Assembly could not bring itself to so much as “express concern.”

Instead, Mr. Maduro’s stalwart allies — led by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada — blasted the meeting from the get-go and voted down even the most watered-down resolution, an approach that increasingly is causing friction with an anti-Maduro bloc that includes Argentina, Brazil and the United States.

“We demand the end of the political harassment [and] continued disqualification of all the efforts President Nicolas Maduro’s government is making to promote the dialogue between our Venezuelan brothers,” an unflinching Mr. Moncada told his fellow diplomats at the June 19 encounter in Cancun, Mexico.

The meeting itself, Mr. Moncada argued, amounted to “hostile and unfriendly” meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs — an attitude that so incensed his Argentine counterpart, Jorge Faurie, that Mr. Faurie subtly linked Mr. Maduro’s regime to the infamous military junta that ruled his own country from 1976 to 1983.

“[Then-Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez told us] that we were not living in a democracy, that we ought not to have political prisoners, that people ought not to be tortured,” Mr. Faurie said. “And that was not meddling, but the defense of democracy.”

In the end, though, Nicaragua recruited four more nays and eight abstentions, depriving the 20 anti-Maduro members of the two-thirds majority needed to adopt any resolution. Such an international impasse, Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Jose Guerra said, truly matters amid an already entrenched scenario.

“There are calls to apply more drastic measures toward Nicolas Maduro’s government — something more mandatory and demanding — but it’s not been possible because of this situation,” Mr. Guerra told The Washington Times. “A more forceful decision likely would have meant a somewhat faster end to this crisis.”

Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua

For Venezuelans on the other side of government batons, meanwhile, regional diplomats’ actions — or inaction — can have real-life consequences.

“When we [lawmakers] were attacked at the National Assembly [on July 5], international opinion weighed heavily on the government, so much so that they themselves came out to condemn what had happened,” Mr. Guerra noted. “It matters. Not as much as in a normal country, but it matters.”

In regional bodies like the OAS, however, the rules of the game mean Mr. Maduro likely need not fear that the helpful gridlock will dissipate anytime soon.

“The Americas are divided in two blocs between the more democratic countries and those that back the regime,” Mr. Guerra said. “As the OAS is a ‘one country, one vote’ institution, Argentina’s vote is worth as much as that of St. Kitts and Nevis. So it’s a difficult institution to make decisions.”

Key among Mr. Maduro’s allies are not just left-wing leaders such as Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno and Bolivia’s Evo Morales — who back him mostly for ideological reasons — but also those of a handful of Caribbean island nations, which have long picked Caracas over Washington because of generous handouts.

Venezuela had 110,000 barrels of oil per day marked for aid [programs],” Mr. Guerra said. “That matters when it’s time to vote, [especially] in a context in which, unfortunately, U.S. policy has been to abandon the region. The oil bought those countries, and now we have the result. That’s the reality.”

Such perceived U.S. disinterest — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson did not attend the OAS meeting — contrasts with President Trump’s initial engagement on Venezuela, said Christine Balling, a senior fellow for Latin American affairs at the conservative American Foreign Policy Council.

“I don’t think the administration has been advised to focus enough on the situation, and I think that’s a mistake, and I think it’s also an embarrassment,” Ms. Balling said. “As a country which prides itself on democratic values and human rights, us not putting more pressure on Venezuela [probably is] another reason why [his allies] haven’t felt any pressure whatsoever to knock Maduro.”

It would, in fact, take tremendous pressure for leftist hard-liners like Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to change course, said Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, a former defense minister and son of former President Violeta Chamorro.

“The level of commitment of Nicaragua’s government to Venezuela’s — the level of moral, ideological and personal commitment — is such that it can’t do anything but what it’s doing,” Mr. Chamorro said. “All Ortega can do is line up and back [Mr. Maduro] until the final straw, which will come soon enough.”

‘Crisis of the hemisphere’

Even if jumping ship becomes politically convenient as Venezuela tumbles further and further into chaos, leftist leaders — including Mr. Ortega, Mr. Moreno and Mr. Morales — may fear it would taint the project they have led for the better part of a decade.

“[Mr. Maduro’s ouster] would mark the end of the populist regimes in Latin America,” Mr. Chamorro said. “It would suggest the end of the ‘21st century socialism’ experiment, and that the whole populist [wave] failed resoundingly. And those who identified with that movement would be history’s losers.”

With little hope for action at the OAS and the Union of South American Nations, thus, Maduro foes may have to pin their hopes on smaller fora like Mercosur, originally conceived as a trade bloc, which, led by Argentine President Mauricio Macri, did move last year to temporarily suspend Venezuela.

“What Argentina has tried in recent days is to give Latin America — and South America — a new image,” said Gustavo Cardozo of the Argentine Center of International Studies in Buenos Aires.

Mercosur, in turn, “has become a forum of political and ideological cooperation — and practically inconsequential in economic terms,” Mr. Cardozo said.

Although Uruguay’s government has been less outspoken than Mr. Macri’s and those of Brazil and Paraguay — the remaining Mercosur members — Mr. Maduro cannot count on any unquestioning loyalty in the Montevideo-based body.

Venezuela is a totalitarian state, a militarized state, with a regime that massacres the will of a people seeking political change amid the exhaustion of its economic model,” Mr. Cardozo said. “If Maduro doesn’t give in Venezuela will soon be on the precipice of being expelled from Mercosur.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Guerra, the Venezuelan lawmaker, said he hoped, against all odds, that a broader anti-Maduro coalition might yet assemble. If a longtime ally like Ecuador could somehow be brought to turn on the strongman, the impact could not be overstated, he said.

“It could be fundamental,” Mr. Guerra said. “Symbolically, it could lead Maduro to reason because he remains isolated. [The days when] he had the entire region in his mind, they’ve been over now for a while.”

Until such time, however, it was perhaps Costa Rica’s foreign minister, Manuel Gonzalez, who best summed it up at the June OAS fiasco.

Venezuela’s crisis is a crisis of the hemisphere; it involves us all,” he said. “Here we are practically split in two groups that try to feel like losers and winners. [But] the only losers are the Venezuelan citizens, who today hoped for an answer.”

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