Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

How Not to Treat the Neighborhood Bully

Trying to track the course of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is enough to give one whiplash. Where a few weeks ago Barack Obama’s administration appeared to take a principled stand behind opposition protests asserting that this April’s presidential election to elect Hugo Chávez’s successor was stolen, today it seems to have tossed the opposition overboard ...

JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Trying to track the course of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is enough to give one whiplash. Where a few weeks ago Barack Obama's administration appeared to take a principled stand behind opposition protests asserting that this April's presidential election to elect Hugo Chávez's successor was stolen, today it seems to have tossed the opposition overboard as it seeks to normalize relations with the disputed government of Nicolás Maduro.

Even as opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been traveling to regional capitals seeking support for his campaign for a clean election, someone at the State Department evidently thought it was perfect timing for a smiling, handshaking photo op between Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua at last week's Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala.

Certainly it would be understandable if a U.S.-Venezuelan rapprochement was the product of some identifiable change in that government's behavior -- some nod to the legitimacy of the opposition's complaints, maybe a commitment to stop berating the United States and friendly countries, or perhaps even a public pledge to finally cooperate on counternarcotics policy. Yet none of this has occurred.

Trying to track the course of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is enough to give one whiplash. Where a few weeks ago Barack Obama’s administration appeared to take a principled stand behind opposition protests asserting that this April’s presidential election to elect Hugo Chávez’s successor was stolen, today it seems to have tossed the opposition overboard as it seeks to normalize relations with the disputed government of Nicolás Maduro.

Even as opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been traveling to regional capitals seeking support for his campaign for a clean election, someone at the State Department evidently thought it was perfect timing for a smiling, handshaking photo op between Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua at last week’s Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala.

Certainly it would be understandable if a U.S.-Venezuelan rapprochement was the product of some identifiable change in that government’s behavior — some nod to the legitimacy of the opposition’s complaints, maybe a commitment to stop berating the United States and friendly countries, or perhaps even a public pledge to finally cooperate on counternarcotics policy. Yet none of this has occurred.

Instead, this is what we have seen from the Maduro government in the last few months:

Not exactly what you would call a charm offensive.

Indeed, the only thing we have seen from the Maduro government since its tainted victory is an accelerated offensive to replace the Castro regime as the bully in the Latin American neighborhood, using threats both explicit and implicit to intimidate anyone daring to criticize its anti-democratic actions.

Rewarding bad behavior is no way to treat a bully. Moreover, one does not have to be Bismarck to recognize that indulgence of belligerent actions among states only encourages more aberrant behavior.

Most frustrating is that, unlike Chávez, Maduro’s vitriol and bombast are a reflection of his weakness, not his strength. Clearly, he is in over his head, commands no respect at home, has disputed legitimacy, and is manifestly incapable of managing the socioeconomic disaster bequeathed by Chávez. In such a scenario, he desperately needs U.S. recognition of his regime, and it is now being handed to him on a silver platter, with no apparent concessions being demanded of him.

That isn’t statesmanship; it’s an abdication of it. Maduro and his Cuban minders are avowed enemies of the United States. Throwing them a "lifeline" — as the Washington Post put it in a blistering editorial — with some wooly hope that they will see the error of their ways will only succeed in inviting an even worse situation for U.S. interests than the one we are confronting now.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.