Argentina’s Deal With the Devil

For a moment, it looked like Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition had a powerful new ally in Buenos Aires. But it didn’t take long for principles to give way to big politics.

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Leopoldo López, one of the leaders of Venezuela’s opposition, is Latin America’s most famous political prisoner. During his two and a half years in jail, his jailers have locked him away in isolation, taken away his books, and sprayed him with human feces. His wife and mother have been subjected to humiliating cavity searches during visits. No international humanitarian organizations have been allowed to see him.

So one can only imagine López’s surprise when, earlier this month, his warden announced an unexpected visitor: former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Zapatero came to López with a startling offer: if he ended his campaign against the government, he could have his freedom. (López politely declined.)

A few weeks earlier, thousands of miles to the south, Argentine president Mauricio Macri had announced the candidacy of his foreign minister, Susana Malcorra, for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations.

Strange as it may seem, the two events — Zapatero’s offer to López and Malcorra’s U.N. bid — are intimately connected. The story underscores how Argentina’s new president — once seen as a vocal supporter of Venezuela’s opposition — is changing his tune, abandoning his principles in exchange for diplomatic victories.

In his campaign for the presidency, Macri had emphasized that, unlike his predecessor and rival, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, he was no friend to the ruling chavista regime in Caracas. Instead, he promised to challenge Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, on his violations of human rights and his suppression of the opposition. He even invited López’s wife to Buenos Aires to celebrate his electoral victory.

The hopes of Venezuela’s opposition were heightened still further when Macri tapped the experienced Malcorra — who had served for four years as Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s chief of staff — for the post of foreign minister. As a fixture in international diplomatic circles, she was considered a heavyweight who had access to heads of state the world over. Venezuela’s opposition believed her experience would lend gravitas to their cause.

But since then it has become clear that Malcorra has other goals in her sights, and none involve Venezuela’s dissidents. Taking advantage of a consensus that the next Secretary General should be a woman, and sensing an opening, she has thrown her hat into the ring. But to make her campaign viable, she has decided to cut a deal with Venezuela’s hapless chavista president.

Malcorra has two main rivals for the Secretary General role. One is Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian head of UNESCO, the U.N. agency in charge of education and culture. Bokova is a strong candidate because many feel the job should go to an Eastern European, a region that has never held the post. Another strong contender is Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, a part of the world that also has never held the top U.N. post. Clark is the current head of the U.N. Development Program, where she is seen as a successful reformer.

Both Bokova and Clark have support in the Security Council, which must recommend a candidate to the General Assembly for a vote. The former is supported by Russia, and the latter by New Zealand (currently a Security Council member). But the lack of consensus has provided the well-liked Malcorra with her opening.

That is where Venezuela comes in. The country is in its second year as a member of the Security Council, and it has close relations with both Russia and China. Since April, Malcorra has conducted a series of meetings with the Venezuelan foreign minister and with Maduro himself. According to veteran Miami Herald reporter Casto Ocando and other sources, she has made a deal with the regime: Venezuela will do everything in its power to promote her candidacy. In exchange, Argentina will block efforts by the Organization of American States (OAS) to punish Venezuela for its human rights record.

Malcorra quickly went to work. Even as the Secretary General of the OAS waged a war of words with Maduro over Venezuela’s sad state of affairs — chief among them, the government’s efforts to stifle the opposition — Argentina started blocking the OAS’s efforts to approve a hefty report criticizing Venezuela for violating the region’s Interamerican Democratic Charter.

Instead, Argentina argued, the Venezuelan regime should engage in dialogue with the opposition to find a way out of the country’s severe economic and political crisis. The opposition believes the proposed talks are just a way of giving Maduro breathing room while accomplishing nothing of substance. But Malcorra appears to have little sympathy for the dissidents’ longstanding attempts to challenge his disastrous and oppressive rule — not when there’s a Secretary General position for the taking. And, as it turns out, it was Malcorra who got former Spanish President Zapatero to visit Caracas to broker the talks, with the Maduro administration’s enthusiastic approval. That is how Zapatero ended up visiting López in his cell.

Sources have confirmed the content of Zapatero’s message: Maduro’s government was willing to free its political prisoners from jail (keeping them under house arrest) and to make a few other minor concessions. In exchange, the opposition would withdraw its outstanding petition to hold a recall referendum against the deeply unpopular Maduro.

López promptly declined Zapatero’s offer, describing the recall referendum on Twitter as non-negotiable. His stance was echoed by Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s other main leader and the main force behind the recall effort.

Most shocking of all was the realization that the initiative came from an Argentine government many Venezuelan dissidents had believed to be their ally. The spat even prompted Capriles to travel to Buenos Aires to meet with Macri, with little discernible result. Neither Malcorra nor Macri seem swayed.

This controversy shows that the Venezuelan opposition continues to find itself alone in its battles with a regime that controls nearly all the levers of power. The lengths to which Latin America’s power brokers will go to advance their agendas is one of the reasons Nicolás Maduro remains in power. Once again, an important regional player has chosen to look away from the plight of the Venezuelan people.

The disastrous policies of Maduro (and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez) have plunged Venezuela into a humanitarian crisis. Reports of people going hungry or dying from lack of medicine are growing; incidents of looting are multiplying. The country is on the brink of chaos, and there’s no sign that the government plans to change course. Just recently, Maduro announced that food will no longer be distributed to supermarkets, but rather directly by his political operatives. Only his supporters will get handouts, promising to make a volatile situation all the more unstable.

But this does not seem to matter to Malcorra. Venezuela’s agony is just another unsolvable problem, and its opposition just another pawn in her quest for worldwide diplomatic recognition.

If she becomes Secretary General, one can only hope she will take a moment to pull the Venezuelan people from underneath the bus she threw them under. Perhaps, once she is in power, she will spare a thought for the imprisoned López, languishing in his cell thousands of miles from the U.N. headquarters.

On June 9, riot police prepared to confront students of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas who were demanding a referendum on removing President Nicolás Maduro.

Photo Credit: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @juannagel

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