Maduro di­vides re­gion to hold regime

So­cial­ist move­ment at stake as Venezuela pres­i­dent loses hearts and minds of peo­ple

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY FRED­ERIC PUGLIE

Dur­ing his 14 years in power, Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez proved a mas­ter at prod­ding in­fight­ing amid his coun­try’s pesky but frac­tured op­po­si­tion — a “di­vide and con­quer” strat­egy ap­par­ently not lost on his em­bat­tled suc­ces­sor, Ni­co­las Maduro.

Un­like Chavez, Mr. Maduro no longer is bat­tling for the hearts and minds of Venezue­lans, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom blame him for an un­prece­dented eco­nomic and so­cial melt­down. Rather, he has driven a wedge be­tween other coun­tries in the re­gion, thus prevent­ing any mean­ing­ful call or ac­tion to oust his regime.

How­ever, thou­sands of Venezue­lans lined up last Sun­day across the coun­try to vote in a sym­bolic re­jec­tion of Mr. Maduro’s plan to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion, a pro­posal that’s es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions in a na­tion stricken by wide­spread short­ages and more than 100 days of antigov­ern­ment protests.

In what ap­peared to be smaller num­bers in many parts of the cap­i­tal, gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers went to polling sta­tions in a re­hearsal for a July 30 vote to elect mem­bers of the as­sem­bly that will re­tool Venezuela’s 1999 con­sti­tu­tion.

The op­po­si­tion says the vote has been struc­tured to pack the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly with gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers and al­low Mr. Maduro to elim­i­nate the few re­main­ing checks on his power, cre­at­ing a Cuba-style sys­tem dom­i­nated by his so­cial­ist party.

Last month, the ef­fi­cacy of Mr. Maduro’s wedge ap­proach in deal­ing with re­gional neigh­bors was on dis­play: Even as he bull­dozed what lit­tle was left of rule of law in Venezuela and the death toll at anti-gov­ern­ment protests topped 70, the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States’ Gen­eral As­sem­bly could not bring it­self to so much as “ex­press con­cern.”

In­stead, Mr. Maduro’s stal­wart al­lies — led by Nicaraguan For­eign Min­is­ter De­nis Mon­cada — blasted the meet­ing from the get-go and voted down even the most wa­tered­down res­o­lu­tion, an ap­proach that in­creas­ingly is caus­ing fric­tion with an anti-Maduro bloc that in­cludes Ar­gentina, Brazil and the United States.

“We de­mand the end of the po­lit­i­cal ha­rass­ment [and] con­tin­ued dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of all the ef­forts Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s gov­ern­ment is mak­ing to pro­mote the di­a­logue be­tween our Venezue­lan broth­ers,” an un­flinch­ing Mr. Mon­cada told his fel­low di­plo­mats at the June 19 en­counter in Can­cun, Mex­ico.

The meet­ing it­self, Mr. Mon­cada ar­gued, amounted to “hos­tile and un­friendly” med­dling in Venezuela’s in­ter­nal af­fairs — an at­ti­tude that so in­censed his Ar­gen­tine coun­ter­part, Jorge Fau­rie, that the lat­ter sub­tly linked Mr. Maduro’s regime to the in­fa­mous mil­i­tary junta that ruled his own coun­try from 1976 to 1983.

“[Then-Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Car­los An­dres Perez told us] that we were not liv­ing in a democ­racy, that we ought not to have po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, that peo­ple ought not to be tor­tured,” Mr. Fau­rie coun­tered. “And that was not med­dling, but the de­fense of democ­racy.”

In the end, though, Nicaragua re­cruited four more nays and eight ab­sten­tions, de­priv­ing the 20 anti-Maduro mem­bers of the two-thirds ma­jor­ity needed to adopt any res­o­lu­tion. And such an in­ter­na­tional im­passe, Venezue­lan op­po­si­tion law­maker Jose Guerra said, truly mat­ters amid an al­ready en­trenched sce­nario.

“There are calls to ap­ply more dras­tic mea­sures to­ward Ni­co­las Maduro’s gov­ern­ment — some­thing more manda­tory and de­mand­ing — but it’s not been pos­si­ble be­cause of this sit­u­a­tion,” Mr. Guerra told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “A more force­ful de­ci­sion likely would have meant a some­what faster end to this cri­sis.”

Ecuador, Bo­livia, Nicaragua

For Venezue­lans who find them­selves on the other side of gov­ern­ment ba­tons, mean­while, re­gional di­plo­mats’ ac­tions — or in­ac­tion — can have real-life con­se­quences.

“When we [law­mak­ers] were at­tacked at the Na­tional As­sem­bly [on July 5], in­ter­na­tional opin­ion weighed heav­ily on the gov­ern­ment, so much so that they them­selves came out to con­demn what had hap­pened,” Mr. Guerra noted. “It mat­ters. Not as much as in a nor­mal coun­try, but it mat­ters.”

In re­gional bod­ies like the OAS, how­ever, the rules of the game mean Mr. Maduro likely need not fear the help­ful grid­lock will dis­si­pate any time soon.

“The Amer­i­cas are di­vided in two blocs be­tween the more demo­cratic coun­tries and those that back the regime,” Mr. Guerra said. “As the OAS is a ‘one coun­try, one vote’ in­sti­tu­tion, Ar­gentina’s vote is worth as much as that of Saint Kitts and Ne­vis. So it’s a dif­fi­cult in­sti­tu­tion to make de­ci­sions.”

Key among Mr. Maduro’s al­lies are not just left-wing lead­ers like Ecuador’s Lenin Moreno and Bo­livia’s Evo Mo­rales — who back him mostly for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons — but also those of a hand­ful of Caribbean is­land na­tions, who have long picked Caracas over Wash­ing­ton be­cause of gen­er­ous hand­outs.

“Venezuela had 110,000 bar­rels of oil per day marked for aid [pro­grams],” Mr. Guerra said. “That mat­ters when it’s time to vote, [es­pe­cially] in a con­text in which, un­for­tu­nately, U.S. pol­icy has been to aban­don the re­gion. The oil bought those coun­tries, and now we have the re­sult. That’s the re­al­ity.”

Such per­ceived U.S. dis­in­ter­est — Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son did not at­tend the OAS meet­ing — con­trasts with the Pres­i­dent Trump’s ini­tial en­gage­ment on Venezuela, said Christine Balling, a se­nior fel­low for Latin Amer­i­can af­fairs at the con­ser­va­tive Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy Coun­cil.

“I don’t think the ad­min­is­tra­tion has been ad­vised to fo­cus enough on the sit­u­a­tion, and I think that’s a mis­take, and I think it’s also an em­bar­rass­ment,” Ms. Balling said. “As a coun­try which prides it­self on demo­cratic val­ues and hu­man rights, us not putting more pres­sure on Venezuela [prob­a­bly is] an­other rea­son why [his al­lies] haven’t felt any pres­sure what­so­ever to knock Maduro.”

And it would, in fact, take tremen­dous pres­sure for left­ist hard-lin­ers like Nicaraguan Pres­i­dent Daniel Ortega to change course, sug­gested Pe­dro Joaquin Chamorro, a for­mer de­fense min­is­ter and son of for­mer Pres­i­dent Vi­o­leta Chamorro.

“The level of com­mit­ment of Nicaragua’s gov­ern­ment to Venezuela’s — the level of moral, ide­o­log­i­cal and per­sonal com­mit­ment — is such that it can’t do any­thing but what it’s do­ing,” Mr. Chamorro said. “All Ortega can do is line up and back [Mr. Maduro] un­til the fi­nal straw, which will come soon enough.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Venezuela’s op­po­si­tion wing called for a mas­sive turnout last Sun­day in a sym­bolic voter re­jec­tion of Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s plan to re­write the con­sti­tu­tion, a pro­posal that’s es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions in a na­tion.

Crit­ics say Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro’s wish to re­draft the coun­try’s law could re­sult in an au­to­cratic regime in which his power goes unchecked — sim­i­lar to Cuba.

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