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Venezuela’s Meltdown Could Be Trump’s First Nightmare, Too

While Trump rages at China and Iran, there’s a looming disaster a lot closer to home.

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Places as far flung as China, North Korea, Iran, and the Moscow Ritz-Carlton have been vying to be President-elect Donald Trump’s first big foreign-policy crisis when he takes office. But Venezuela, grappling with political deadlock and economic cataclysm, is quickly elbowing its way to the top of the list and may pose the first big test for a neophyte administration.

Venezuela was already a mess under former President Hugo Chávez, whose corruption and economic mismanagement impoverished one of Latin America’s brightest stars. But things have gone from awful to hellish under President Nicolás Maduro, who replaced Chavez upon his death in 2013 — especially after the steep plunge in oil prices the past two years that mauled Venezuela’s finances. Now, the country is wrestling with shortages of food and medicine, Zimbabwe-level inflation, and violent anti-government protests.

In search of a peaceful political solution to the impasse, the United States has backed a dialogue between Maduro’s government and a coalition of opposition groups. The dialogue, promoted by the Vatican in October, seeks to find common ground amid the opposition’s call for Maduro to leave office after his party’s recent electoral defeats. Those talks have since ground to a halt.

One prominent opposition leader, María Corina Machado, told Foreign Policy that the dialogue on which Washington is pinning its hopes was doomed to fail from the start. “It cannot be called a dialogue; it’s not,” she said. “It is a fraud.”

U.S. officials say they’re open-eyed about the chances the dialogue will work, but worry even more about the alternatives. “We’re not confident the dialogue will produce compromise, but not engaging in dialogue would undoubtedly lead to further escalation and violence in the streets,” a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

The deliberately low-key approach to Venezuela is partly by design, the U.S. official says, and was meant to marginalize the influence of Chávez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution, which earned anti-American allies in such countries as Ecuador and Bolivia.

Maduro, like Chávez and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro before him, thrives on stoking confrontation with the United States. And interference from Washington could end up tainting Venezuelan opposition parties. The Obama administration set out to “intentionally lower the decibel level on Venezuela to avoid drowning out those voicing valid concerns about the direction of the country,” the official told FP.

The direction isn’t good. Maduro blames the economic and political crisis on rivals, hostile businesspeople, and the United States. Deeply unpopular, he tossed away what little international support he had after he scuttled a presidential recall referendum last October that experts say he would have lost. Maduro lost “all of his legitimacy of origin after leaving the people of Venezuela without electoral rights,” said Secretary-General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro.

The opposition is growing more desperate. On Monday, the opposition-controlled National Assembly censured Maduro in a last-ditch attempt to counter the president’s power. It may not have much effect; Maduro stripped the National Assembly of powers after the opposition won a surprise majority in December 2015 elections. And Maduro’s government is threatening to dissolve opposition leadership in the Assembly in a bid to wipe out any potential challenge to its rule.

The political fight is very personal for Machado, a former elected member of the National Assembly and lead opposition organizer. She was stripped of her assembly seat, falsely accused of plotting an assassination attempt against Maduro, and assaulted by government parliamentarians in a National Assembly brawl. After receiving repeated death threats against her three children beginning six years ago, she said, she sent them out of Venezuela. The government denied her multiple requests to leave the country even briefly and see her children, even to attend their college graduations.

Machado says she is frustrated with how the United States has dealt with Venezuela, and especially the hopes Washington seems to place in a negotiated accord that could bridge the differences between the government and opposition forces.

“It’s astonishing that at this point anybody could think Maduro could produce any semblance of reconciliation,” Machado said. “Even the Vatican has to understand that.”

She hopes Trump can do more once he steps into office. “The new administration should take a much stronger position on Maduro,” she said. “Now the international community finally understands the true nature of this regime.”

That nature, experts say, is increasingly criminal. The economic turmoil has supercharged a black market that’s the only way to get basic supplies from staple foods to toilet paper. Regime supporters, including the military, are allegedly making a killing. Maduro’s newly appointed vice president, Tarek El Aissami, is a former minister of interior with suspected ties to drug trafficking.

“There are several elements of the [Maduro] government with clear ties to criminal groups and who are robbing the country blind,” the senior U.S. official said.

That’s partly Maduro’s insurance policy against the opposition ousting him, said Matthew Taylor of American University. “He’s fearful of being kicked out by moderates so he’s promoting hard-liners who are involved in the underworld,” Taylor said. If the opposition were to succeed in getting rid of Maduro, El Aissami would take over.

“He’s sending a very clear signal that to the opposition that if you get rid of me, you’ll face a more dangerous horizon,” Taylor added.

The threats to Venezuela and its neighbors are plentiful — from a resurgence of violent protests to the specter of a coup. Cops and government security forces only add to the violence in a country “at war with itself.” And what was once a trickle of Venezuelan refugees has now turned into a steady stream to neighboring Brazil and Colombia. In July 2016 alone, for example, over 120,000 Venezuelans poured into Colombia searching for medicine and food. Economically, Venezuela is at risk of defaulting on its debt. Its economy shrunk an estimated 10 percent in 2016 and inflation could top 1,600 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund. This could worsen an “already horrific situation” for the import-reliant population, Taylor said.

And Venezuela could boil over before the Trump administration has time to settle into government and get its new national security team in place and up to speed.

“The question on everyone’s mind, including the Trump transition team,” the senior U.S. official said, “is whether there’ll be a soft landing in Venezuela, or if the country is headed toward a major humanitarian disaster.”

Photo credit: WILFREDO RIERA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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