Venezue­lan left­ists locked out of deal­ings in Latin Amer­ica

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY FRED­ERIC PUGLIE

BUENOS AIRES | It was a stark il­lus­tra­tion of how far Venezuela’s stock has fallen in the neigh­bor­hood as its left­ist gov­ern­ment deals with eco­nomic calamity and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity.

In an in­ci­dent that gen­er­ated head­lines here, un­in­vited Venezue­lan For­eign Min­is­ter Delcy Rodriguez tried to crash a ma­jor trade sum­mit at the Ar­gen­tine For­eign Min­istry build­ing this month, scuf­fling with se­cu­rity per­son­nel and threat­en­ing at one point to come in through a win­dow if she was blocked. She de­manded a seat at the meet­ing of Mer­co­sur trade bloc mem­bers, even though the group had ousted Venezuela days ear­lier.

The bizarre con­fronta­tion out­side the San Martin Palace is seen by many as a sign of des­per­a­tion amid Caracas’ grow­ing iso­la­tion within the re­gion, where

po­lit­i­cal winds have shifted strongly against Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro.

The cen­ter-right lead­ers of Ar­gentina and Brazil, Mauri­cio Macri and Michel Te­mer, re­spec­tively, quickly over­turned their left­ist pre­de­ces­sors and all but as­signed pariah sta­tus to their Venezue­lan coun­ter­part.

Mr. Macri this year ac­cused Mr. Maduro of caus­ing “famine and aban­don­ment” while hav­ing “vi­o­lated all hu­man rights.”

Venezuela’s em­bat­tled pres­i­dent has re­sponded with ep­i­thets in­clud­ing “po­lit­i­cal hit man” and “dummy of im­pe­ri­al­ism.”

The feud es­ca­lated this year when Mr. Macri and Mr. Te­mer blocked Caracas from as­sum­ing the ro­tat­ing pres­i­dency of Mer­co­sur, South Amer­ica’s big­gest trad­ing bloc, and, cit­ing fail­ure to im­ple­ment trade rules and to up­hold demo­cratic stan­dards, sus­pended the coun­try from the five-mem­ber group on Dec. 2.

As a con­se­quence, the Venezue­lan for­eign min­is­ter was told re­peat­edly, “ver­bally and in writ­ing,” that she was un­wel­come at the meet­ing of her coun­ter­parts, at which Buenos Aires took Caracas’ lead­er­ship role, Ar­gen­tine For­eign Min­is­ter Su­sana Mal­corra said.

But Ms. Rodriguez showed up any­way, spark­ing the undiplo­matic diplo­matic stand­off. Even­tu­ally, she was al­lowed into the build­ing, where Ms. Mal­corra im­pro­vised an im­promptu, hour­long encounter along with her coun­ter­parts Rodolfo Nin Novoa of Uruguay and David Cho­que­huanca of Bo­livia.

“We ex­plained to the for­eign min­is­ter of Venezuela that her coun­try was not in­vited … be­cause it had been sus­pended,” Ms. Mal­corra said later. “We were talk­ing in cir­cles: I told her that I had to leave for the Mer­co­sur meet­ing, and she wanted to come along.”

Along with the diplo­matic fra­cas, eco­nomic news out of Venezuela is al­most uni­formly neg­a­tive. The In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund es­ti­mates that na­tional out­put shrank 8 per­cent in 2016 and in­fla­tion was al­most 500 per­cent. To­ward the end of the year, the bo­li­var weak­ened some 60 per­cent to more than 4,000 to the dol­lar on the black mar­ket. The fail­ure of world oil prices to re­bound has un­der­cut the one source of rev­enue that un­der­wrote the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment’s pop­ulist poli­cies.

Pol­i­tics is also frozen, with the Maduro gov­ern­ment deeply un­pop­u­lar but the op­po­si­tion blocked by the courts from a bid to im­peach the pres­i­dent. Elec­tions for gov­er­nors this month have been post­poned, and Mr. Maduro or one of his al­lies is ex­pected to be able to hold on to the pres­i­dency un­til his term for­mally ends in Jan­uary 2019.

The Fi­nan­cial Times, in an edi­to­rial this week, sug­gested that the best short­term eco­nomic rem­edy for the coun­try could be to pro­vide safe pas­sage for Mr. Maduro and his al­lies to a third coun­try to end the grid­lock in Caracas and al­low for a peace­ful trans­fer of power to the op­po­si­tion.

Di­vided Venezuela

The in­ci­dent at the Mer­co­sur meet­ing caused strong par­ti­san re­ac­tions in Venezuela, where back­ers of Mr. Maduro’s gov­ern­ment praised Ms. Rodriguez as a na­tional hero­ine while the pres­i­dent, speak­ing at a sum­mit of left­ist lead­ers in Havana, de­cried the Ar­gen­tine gov­ern­ment’s “cow­ardice against this wor­thy woman.”

The Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion, mean­while, coun­tered that the scene only un­der­scored the au­to­cratic regime’s in­ep­ti­tude on the in­ter­na­tional stage along with its in­abil­ity to fol­low even the most ba­sic rules of the po­lit­i­cal game, said Richard Arteaga, a mem­ber of long­time op­po­si­tion leader Hen­rique Capriles’ Jus­tice First party.

“This was a show. In the world of diplo­macy, things don’t get worked out this way,” said Mr. Arteaga, who served on the Mer­co­sur par­lia­ment in Mon­te­v­ideo be­fore he was elected to the Na­tional Assem­bly. For­mer pop­ulist Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez “used to say, ‘Gov­ern­ments move from sum­mit to sum­mit.’ This gov­ern­ment moves from show to show.”

Venezuela’s grow­ing iso­la­tion spells an end to Chavez’s dreams of a “con­ti­nen­tal project” while fo­cus­ing an even harsher light on the coun­try’s dire sit­u­a­tion amid a so­cial and eco­nomic melt­down, the law­maker said.

“What hap­pened to the for­eign min­is­ter is the re­sult of poli­cies,” Mr. Arteaga said. “I feel very ashamed that we are tak­ing part in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs [in this way].”

Chris­tine Balling, a se­nior fel­low for Latin Amer­i­can af­fairs at the Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy Coun­cil, ar­gued that there may be a method to the mad­ness as Mr. Maduro and Ms. Rodriguez try to deal with their coun­try’s mul­ti­ple crises. Mak­ing a show of strength also helps the em­bat­tled pres­i­dent rally his shrink­ing base, Ms. Balling said.

“What seems to be ir­ra­tional and crazy be­hav­ior from the Amer­i­can per­spec­tive … is a very strong pro­pa­ganda tool for the Maduro regime. It makes head­lines,” Ms. Balling said. “[And] this press at­ten­tion de­flects from the ab­so­lute mis­ery in the coun­try.”

But the strat­egy could back­fire if taken too far, alien­at­ing Mr. Maduro’s dwin­dling band of left­ist al­lies such as out­go­ing Ecuadorean Pres­i­dent Rafael Cor­rea and Bo­li­vian Pres­i­dent Evo Mo­rales.

“He’s be­hav­ing like some­what of an un­ruly, petu­lant child,” she said. “That’s be­gin­ning to em­bar­rass other left-lean­ing gov­ern­ments in the area.”

Venezuela’s Mer­co­sur ouster, which could be per­ma­nent, is just the lat­est blow to its oil-based econ­omy, al­ready be­set by run­away in­fla­tion and con­sumer good short­ages, said Ale­jan­dro Grisanti, head of re­search and strat­egy for Latin Amer­ica at Bar­clays Cap­i­tal.

In the long run, he said, it may even help lead the coun­try to re­turn to the An­dean Com­mu­nity, which Mr. Chavez scrapped in fa­vor of Mer­co­sur in 2006 but which many econ­o­mists con­sider a bet­ter fit for Venezuela.

For now, the coun­try’s in­creas­ing iso­la­tion fur­ther di­min­ishes hopes that the Maduro gov­ern­ment will be able to dig it­self out of the hole any­time soon, Mr. Grisanti said.

“I be­lieve the prin­ci­pal ef­fect [of the sus­pen­sion] is po­lit­i­cal,” he said. “In ef­fect, Venezuela is a coun­try that has left all good man­ners be­hind. Venezuela de­stroyed con­fi­dence a long time ago.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Venezue­lans wait out­side a su­per­mar­ket in Caracas to buy gov­ern­ment-sub­sided food, nearly all of which is im­ported. The in­creas­ingly iso­lated coun­try, un­der the left­ist gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro, is be­set by run­away in­fla­tion and short­ages of con­sumer goods and is no longer wel­come within a Latin Amer­i­can trade group.

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