Wary of a Backlash, U.S. Weighs Options to Answer Venezuela Crisis
President Nicolás Maduro is defying lawmakers and clinging to power, but a nudge from Washington could play right into his hands.
The United States is trying to figure out how best to respond to a deepening crisis in Venezuela after President Nicolás Maduro rejected demands for his recall by opposition lawmakers. The constitutional impasse comes as Venezuela suffers an economic meltdown, with food and medicine in short supply and gangs and guns in abundance.
The stakes of a protracted standoff are high as concerns mount that the country of 30 million could further unravel amid the tanking economy and endemic crime, even as American attention is divided by the presidential election and ongoing military campaigns in the Middle East. But the challenge for Washington, according to a senior State Department official, is how to strike the right balance in a country whose leaders have long viewed the United States as a malevolent outside force and who routinely exploit that sentiment for political gain.
“We have to be very mindful of the tone and tenor we take, lest the point we’re trying to make actually ends up in the opposite result,” the official told Foreign Policy.
But some critics of Washington’s subdued response are urging the United States to ignore Maduro’s anti-imperial broadsides and take more assertive action.
“Given the dire events on the ground, the time is past to worry about that,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He said the United States should take a leading role in shaping the international response to the crisis, including offering humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people.
The current standoff erupted after Maduro’s electoral council suspended a referendum last week aimed at removing him from office. Opposition lawmakers, who control Congress, accuse Maduro of driving the country’s economy into the ground and steamrolling its democratic institutions. In response to the nixed referendum, Lawmakers passed a resolution Sunday declaring “the breakdown of constitutional order” and “ a coup d’état committed by the Nicolás Maduro regime.”
The International Monetary Fund expects Venezuela’s economic output to shrink by 10 percent in 2016, and inflation to rise above 700 percent. Basic foodstuffs have vanished from store shelves; parents have to ransack the black market in search of life-saving medicines. The Maduro regime, its critics say, has used its control over state industries to rob the country. U.S. prosecutors are preparing charges against officials at the state oil company for allegedly siphoning some $11 billion out of the country, Bloomberg reported.
Like many Venezuelans, U.S. diplomats say that since congressional elections in December 2015 — in which the opposition won a two-thirds majority — Maduro has sought to muzzle lawmakers. “We have witnessed how the executive and judicial branches have stripped away, undermined, and diluted the National Assembly’s constitutionally guaranteed functions and responsibilities,” Annie Pforzheimer, the acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, told Congress this summer. She said that the recall referendum, since blocked by Maduro, would be the best way for Venezuelans to “express their political will.”
But Maduro has dismissed his opponents as power-hungry coup plotters and refused to step down.
“The revolution will continue to win despite the constant pretensions of the right which is trying to take over power by unconstitutional means,” Maduro said in a video message. He has repeatedly insinuated that the opposition has links to the United States, which he says wants to pillage Venezuela’s “oil riches.”
Maduro met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday, and the Catholic leader reportedly urged him to end the people’s suffering by resolving the crisis. Meanwhile, several hundred students burned trash cans and erected roadblocks in the restive border city of San Cristobal. “We want freedom!” yelled the demonstrators.
The opposition is calling for nationwide rallies on Wednesday dubbed “The Takeover of Venezuela.”
The best hope for a peaceful resolution of the standoff is a new round of talks slated for Sunday between the socialist Venezuelan government and the opposition, the Vatican’s envoy announced on Monday. Past dialogues between the two bitterly opposed sides have repeatedly ended without progress, and on Tuesday, major factions of Venezuela’s opposition ruled out participation in the government-proposed talks.
“These devils want to use the good faith of Pope Francis to buy more time,” said Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate. “No dialogue has begun in Venezuela,” he said.
The question for Washington is whether to get out in front of the crisis or play a behind-the-scenes role.
Piccone of Brookings said the United States should take its cue from Venezuela’s National Assembly leaders and “activate mechanisms at the Organization of American States” that are designed for such political crises. The OAS can censure regional governments which are no longer functional democracies, as it has done in the case of Cuba.
Ricardo Hausmann, a Latin America expert at the Harvard Kennedy School, noted that the OAS could activate its Democratic Charter in response to Maduro’s actions. That could get the ball rolling on “individualized sanctions on people who violate the constitution, human rights, or launder money,” he said. “It could also put on the table the kind of assistance a new government might get if democracy is reestablished.”
But the risk, especially given Maduro’s repeated claims of U.S. involvement in plots to topple him, is that too prominent an American role could boomerang.
“I am convinced that any public statement coming from the U.S. government will not help the opposition,” said Miguel Santos, a Latin America scholar at Harvard University. Instead, he encouraged the United States to play a more low-profile role that involves coordinating closely with other countries in the region.
“The U.S. should use their sphere of influence to try to bring other countries in Latin America along to exert direct pressure on Venezuela,” he said; Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay, in particular, he noted, have been leery of criticizing Maduro.
The State Department hasn’t been completely aloof. Tom Shannon, the State Department’s under secretary for political affairs and a longtime Latin America hand, has made at least two trips to Venezuela this year. A senior State Department official said Monday that Shannon is “very engaged” in the current crisis and is taking the lead for the department.
When asked if the United States would urge a tougher response from the OAS, the official declined to speculate, but said discussions at the international body were taking place.