Maduro divides region to hold regime
Socialist movement at stake as Venezuela president loses hearts and minds of people
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.”
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.