- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
Under fire both domestically and internationally for its decision to arbitrarily cancel a recall referendum against President Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan government has pirouetted out of its precarious position by yet again ensnaring opposition representatives in a spurious “dialogue.” Worse, a collection of international mediators, including the Vatican, have granted the talks a patina of legitimacy. They have also received the endorsement of the Barack Obama administration.
No one should be fooled.
To put it succinctly, according to the Eurasia Group, “Maduro’s administration is engaging in the Vatican-mediated talks to alleviate international pressure, divide the opposition, and buy time.”
It is difficult to construe any rational basis for a dialogue other than the belief that dialogue — in the abstract — is good. Well, of course it is — provided all sides possess a smidgen of good faith and are willing to make concessions in pursuit of a peaceful resolution to a dispute.
None of that exists in the case of Venezuela under chavismo — the movement founded by the late Hugo Chávez. In fact, in the eyes of the government, the opposition has never even been considered legitimate — which is why, among other predatory acts, the government has jailed opposition leaders, deprived the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its constitutional powers, postponed gubernatorial elections in which the opposition was set to make major gains, and suppressed the only independent media outlets that gave the opposition a voice.
Those are hardly conditions for an honest “dialogue.”
The most troubling aspect of this recent development, however, is not just that it is a pointless exercise at a critical moment in time, but that it is destructive. One, it undercuts efforts led by the spirited Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro, a growing number of new sitting governments, and a group of former presidents to rally the region behind a more forceful stance against the Maduro government’s systematic predation of democratic norms.
This is a development the United States has been pushing for years. For the Obama administration to now debilitate that effort on behalf of a dialogue no sensible person believes has any merit is unconscionable.
Secondly, the dialogue trap betrays millions of Venezuelans’ desire for profound and peaceful change. The heady days of the Chávez era, when oil was selling at $150 per barrel, have devolved into a humanitarian nightmare. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, “Severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for many Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care. And severe shortages of food and other goods make it difficult for many people to obtain adequate nutrition and cover their families’ basic needs.”
In short, Venezuelans are desperate for a new direction — and they are entitled to it though peaceful, democratic means. They don’t deserve a meaningless sideshow in which the government responsible for their mounting misery gets to bob and weave, then ultimately forego meaningful reforms.
To be sure, not all of the Venezuelan opposition supports the dialogue; they see through the government’s ploy. But the result has nevertheless been crippling to the opposition cause: It has taken the air out of civil disobedience (a march on the presidential palace was cancelled), an impeachment trial of Maduro in the National Assembly has been postponed, and the government has taken the recall referendum off the table. And all for the chance to have talks? Charlie Brown, meet football.
That the Maduro government would seek to distract attention from its authoritarian behavior and economic ineptitude is understandable. What is not excusable is the Obama administration participating in this fraud. They are seemingly tone-deaf to a new mood in the Western Hemisphere, where polarizing populist governance is being rejected in favor of pragmatism. As such, new leaders are coming to power who have no interest in carrying chavismo’s water any longer. However, what they are looking for is signals from Washington that any limb on which they climb out won’t be severed behind them. The Obama administration has just done that by endorsing a phony dialogue between the Venezuelan government and the opposition.
Whoever occupies the White House in January will inherit a mess in Venezuela, made worse by the policies of its current government. We can only hope a fresh start will lead to a U.S. policy that stands for something. In the meantime, tensions will only grow as the lives of millions of Venezuelans continue to spiral into the abyss.
Photo credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images