- - Tuesday, January 1, 2019

BUENOS AIRES — During his first term as president, Venezuela’s oil production has dropped to 1947 levels, the currency has lost 99.99997 percent of its value, the U.S. and Europe sanctioned a growing number of top government officials, and millions of desperate residents fled the country, sparking refugee and humanitarian crises in several neighboring states. Nevertheless, on Jan. 10, Nicolas Maduro is set to be sworn in for another six years in power in Caracas.

The embattled leftist’s second inauguration, the result of a May election widely considered fraudulent, presents a conundrum for the Trump administration and governments across the region, which are now trying to weigh whether the crisis is best addressed by cutting off diplomatic ties or by continuing to engage with his regime.

In a Dec. 20 meeting in Bogota, the informal “Lima Group” of Maduro critics — whose key members include Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Mexico — agreed that it would no longer recognize Mr. Maduro as Venezuela’s head of state after Jan. 10, though it tabled more concrete decisions until a meeting of foreign ministers later this week.

But cohesion within the group has been complicated by the electoral victories of leftist Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, proponents, respectively, of “noninterventionist” and “hard-line” attitudes toward Caracas.

Mr. Lopez Obrador had invited Mr. Maduro to his own Dec. 1 inauguration, and his top adviser for regional affairs, Maximiliano Reyes Zuniga, insisted in Bogota that Mexico would not break off diplomatic relations with Venezuela under any circumstances.

Mr. Bolsonaro, on the other hand, explicitly retracted an invitation for Mr. Maduro to attend Tuesday’s swearing-in in Brasilia. He noted on Twitter that “naturally, regimes who violate their people’s liberties and openly act against Brazil’s future government … will not be present” at the ceremony. He told reporters last month that he planned to take all action “within the rule of law and democracy” to oppose the governments of Venezuela and Cuba.

In his own end-of-year address to the nation, Mr. Maduro sounded almost chipper, saying he would press for a renewed dialogue with the political opposition and the business community and touting the government’s six-year economic plan through 2025.

Despite what he called the “bloody economic aggression” from outsiders, Mr. Maduro insisted that the country was united and gearing up for “a year of true stability and prosperity.”

The Trump administration, which blasted the May election as a “sham,” has been largely mum on what might be in the cards for Mr. Maduro in his second term.

In a widely noted Nov. 1 speech, White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton lumped Venezuela together with fellow leftist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua as a Latin American “troika of terror.” He promised a comprehensive push to roll back their influence in the region, but hard details on the policy have been scarce.

The State Department said Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Brazil for the inauguration of Mr. Bolsonaro, was holding meetings on regional tensions involving Venezuela as part of his trip. Mr. Pompeo discussed the “need to increase pressure” on Mr. Maduro with Foreign Minister Nestor Bardales of Peru, which has accepted over 500,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from Venezuela in recent years.

Christine Balling, of the American Foreign Policy Council, predicted that, despite the rhetoric, it will likely be business as usual.

“In Washington, it’s going to be nothing new; it doesn’t mean anything. It’s basically just a continuation of the state of affairs,” Ms. Balling told The Washington Times. “Unless something drastic happens with Maduro and his cronies, I don’t think anything’s going to change. And … I don’t think the Trump administration has the appetite right now” for aggressive action against what is still one of the biggest suppliers of crude oil to the U.S. market.

Welcoming an exodus

Washington’s long history of overreach in the region is also a factor. Even shuttering the U.S. Embassy in Caracas might ultimately play into Mr. Maduro’s hands, American and Venezuelan analysts warned.

“Frankly, I don’t think Maduro would care one way or the other if we withdrew our diplomats,” Ms. Balling said.

“[And] obviously … that would make our intelligence efforts more complicated.”

In fact, the Maduro regime seems to all but welcome a possible exodus of foreign personnel, comments by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza suggest.

“Any government that wants to withdraw its ambassador, diplomatic corps and consular corps from Venezuela can do that. They’ll leave with everybody from the ambassador to the last consular official,” Mr. Arreaza said last month.

Veteran Venezuelan diplomat Oscar Hernandez Bernalette said in an interview from Caracas that the anti-Maduro coalition should stay away from such a trap.

“The absence of embassies and diplomatic missions would not be useful and, to the contrary, benefit the government,” said Mr. Hernandez, a columnist for the El Nacional daily. “There [would be] no way to get privileged information about the internal situation, and communication and work channels [would be] closed.”

Cutting diplomatic ties ultimately could also prolong the dire political and economic meltdown that Mr. Hernandez no longer believes Venezuelans can solve on their own.

“Internal negotiations have failed,” he said. “The only way out of this crisis is through international negotiations, and the diplomatic presence in situ will always be more useful.”

Despite a collapsing economy and the election of a hostile new government in Brazil, Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez, adopted a strikingly pugnacious stance ahead of inauguration festivities.

Far from pondering talks with Caracas‘ restive neighbors, Mr. Maduro on Dec. 26 accused neighboring Colombia of sabotaging his country’s power grid and again hinted that the Trump administration was plotting an invasion to remove him from power.

“We have a very powerful enemy, the ‘gringo’ empire,” he said during an event in western Venezuela. “Whoever dares to invade Venezuela, our sacred territory, will meet a people with a rifle in hand and meet [armed forces] ready to fight.”

Rampant power outages in Zulia, a state whose oil reserves alone are believed to exceed those of Argentina and Mexico combined, were the result of “terrorist attacks on the electric system” by Colombians, the embattled leader claimed, further ratcheting up tensions with Bogota.

Support from Putin, Xi

Mr. Maduro’s apparent willingness to embrace his isolation in the region may be linked to his increasingly friendly ties with other autocratic leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, Ms. Balling said.

“[It’s something] the Maduro regime can count on,” she said. “They’re being propped up by some very powerful countries.”

Any hopes of calling in favors with Beijing to put pressure on Caracas, though, are hampered by ongoing trade conflicts and China’s strategic, long-term interest to tap into Venezuela’s vast natural resources, Ms. Balling said.

Mr. Maduro has also found a close ally in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, during a Dec. 3 visit to Caracas, slammed U.S. sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

Venezuela is being subdued, and Turkey is on Venezuela’s side in this,” Mr. Erdogan said. “You cannot punish an entire people to resolve political disagreements.”

Signing a wide-ranging cooperation deal, he said his nation was willing and able to “cover the majority of Venezuela’s needs.”

Turkey has been a key investor in Venezuela’s gold sector, which the Trump administration had added to its sanctions list in November.

Commercial ties between the two countries are so tight that Turkish Airlines defied the trend of other carriers — dozens of which have halted operations at Caracas‘ Maiquetia airport, regularly affected by blackouts and lack of running water — to inaugurate five weekly nonstop flights to Istanbul.

“It is actually another example of how Erdogan is getting away with a heck of a lot,” Ms. Balling said. “He’s that bad-boy NATO ally.”

Just how much Mr. Maduro will get away with in the first year of his second term, though, depends on just how fast Venezuela continues to disintegrate. The International Monetary Fund, Mr. Hernandez said, puts next year’s inflation rate at 10 million percent, while the Brookings Institution warns that refugee numbers could double to 8 million within three years.

“What’s true is that countries do not have an unlimited capacity of suffering this much difficulty,” Mr. Hernandez said. “[But] the government doesn’t seem to want to change the economic and political line it has maintained until now.”

At least for the time being, Mr. Maduro still benefits from a fractured opposition, allies whose political survival depends on unity — or the appearance thereof — and an international community unsure of just what to do with him.

Ultimately, his 15 percent approval rating underlines that it is force, not popular support, that will propel him to his second oath of office on Jan. 10.

“The government has sufficient strength to stay in power while the military sector is backing it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “It still has muscle, has force; what it doesn’t have is popular backing.”

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