Cut­ting Maduro ties risks back­fire on U.S.

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY FRED­ERIC PUGLIE

BUENOS AIRES | Dur­ing his first term as pres­i­dent, Venezuela’s oil pro­duc­tion has dropped to 1947 lev­els, the cur­rency has lost 99.99997 per­cent of its value, the U.S. and Europe sanc­tioned a grow­ing num­ber of top gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, and mil­lions of des­per­ate res­i­dents fled the coun­try, spark­ing refugee and hu­man­i­tar­ian crises in sev­eral neigh­bor­ing states. Nev­er­the­less, on Jan. 10, Ni­co­las Maduro is set to be sworn in for an­other six years in power in Cara­cas.

The em­bat­tled left­ist’s sec­ond in­au­gu­ra­tion, the re­sult of a May elec­tion widely con­sid­ered fraud­u­lent, pre­sents a co­nun­drum for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and gov­ern­ments across the re­gion, which are now try­ing to weigh whether the cri­sis is best ad­dressed by cut­ting off diplo­matic ties or by con­tin­u­ing to en­gage with his regime.

In a Dec. 20 meet­ing in Bo­gota, the in­for­mal “Lima Group” of Maduro crit­ics — whose key mem­bers in­clude Ar­gentina, Brazil, Canada and Mex­ico — agreed that it would no longer rec­og­nize Mr. Maduro as Venezuela’s head of state af­ter Jan. 10, though it tabled more con­crete de­ci­sions un­til a meet­ing of for­eign min­is­ters last week.

But co­he­sion within the group has been com­pli­cated by the elec­toral vic­to­ries of left­ist Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrador and con­ser­va­tive Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent-elect Jair Bol­sonaro, pro­po­nents, re­spec­tively, of “non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist” and “hard-line” at­ti­tudes to­ward Cara­cas.

Mr. Lopez Obrador had in­vited Mr. Maduro to his own Dec. 1 in­au­gu­ra­tion, and his top ad­viser for re­gional af­fairs, Max­i­m­il­iano Reyes Zu­niga, in­sisted in Bo­gota that Mex­ico would not break off diplo­matic re­la­tions with Venezuela un­der any cir­cum­stances.

Mr. Bol­sonaro, on the other hand, ex­plic­itly re­tracted an in­vi­ta­tion for Mr. Maduro to at­tend swear­ing-in in Brasilia. He noted on Twit­ter that “nat­u­rally, regimes who vi­o­late their peo­ple’s lib­er­ties and openly act against Brazil’s fu­ture gov­ern­ment … will not be pre­sent” at the cer­e­mony. He told re­porters last month that he planned to take all ac­tion “within the rule of law and democ­racy” to op­pose the gov­ern­ments of Venezuela and Cuba.

In his own end-of-year ad­dress to the na­tion, Mr. Maduro sounded al­most chip­per, say­ing he would press for a re­newed di­a­logue with the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and the busi­ness com­mu­nity and tout­ing the gov­ern­ment’s six-year eco­nomic plan through 2025.

De­spite what he called the “bloody eco­nomic ag­gres­sion” from out­siders, Mr. Maduro in­sisted that the coun­try was united and gear­ing up for “a year of true sta­bil­ity and pros­per­ity.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, which blasted the May elec­tion as a “sham,” has been largely mum on what might be in the cards for Mr. Maduro in his sec­ond term.

In a widely noted Nov. 1 speech, White House Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser John R. Bolton lumped Venezuela to­gether with fel­low left­ist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua as a Latin Amer­i­can “troika of ter­ror.” He promised a com­pre­hen­sive push to roll back their in­flu­ence in the re­gion, but hard de­tails on the pol­icy have been scarce.

The State De­part­ment said that Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, in Brazil for the in­au­gu­ra­tion of Mr. Bol­sonaro, was hold­ing meet­ings on re­gional ten­sions in­volv­ing Venezuela as part of his trip. Mr. Pom­peo dis­cussed the “need to in­crease pres­sure” on Mr. Maduro with For­eign Min­is­ter Nestor Bardales of Peru, which has ac­cepted over 500,000 refugees and asy­lum-seek­ers from Venezuela in re­cent years.

Chris­tine Balling, of the Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy Coun­cil, pre­dicted that, de­spite the rhetoric, it will likely be busi­ness as usual.

“In Wash­ing­ton, it’s go­ing to be noth­ing new; it doesn’t mean any­thing. It’s ba­si­cally just a con­tin­u­a­tion of the state of af­fairs,” Ms. Balling told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “Un­less some­thing dras­tic hap­pens with Maduro and his cronies, I don’t think any­thing’s go­ing to change. And … I don’t think the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has the ap­petite right now” for ag­gres­sive ac­tion against what is still one of the big­gest sup­pli­ers of crude oil to the U.S. mar­ket.

Wel­com­ing an ex­o­dus

Wash­ing­ton’s long his­tory of over­reach in the re­gion is also a fac­tor. Even shut­ter­ing the U.S. Em­bassy in Cara­cas might ul­ti­mately play into Mr. Maduro’s hands, Amer­i­can and Venezue­lan an­a­lysts warned.

“Frankly, I don’t think Maduro would care one way or the other if we with­drew our diplo­mats,” Ms. Balling said.

“[And] ob­vi­ously … that would make our in­tel­li­gence ef­forts more com­pli­cated.”

In fact, the Maduro regime seems to all but wel­come a pos­si­ble ex­o­dus of for­eign per­son­nel, com­ments by Venezue­lan For­eign Min­is­ter Jorge Ar­reaza sug­gest.

“Any gov­ern­ment that wants to with­draw its am­bas­sador, diplo­matic corps and con­sular corps from Venezuela can do that. They’ll leave with every­body from the am­bas­sador to the last con­sular of­fi­cial,” Mr. Ar­reaza said last month.

Vet­eran Venezue­lan diplo­mat Os­car Her­nan­dez Bernalette said in an in­ter­view from Cara­cas that the anti-Maduro coali­tion should stay away from such a trap.

“The ab­sence of em­bassies and diplo­matic mis­sions would not be use­ful and, to the con­trary, ben­e­fit the gov­ern­ment,” said Mr. Her­nan­dez, a colum­nist for the El Na­cional daily. “There [would be] no way to get priv­i­leged in­for­ma­tion about the in­ter­nal sit­u­a­tion, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion and work channels [would be] closed.”

Cut­ting diplo­matic ties ul­ti­mately could also pro­long the dire po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic melt­down that Mr. Her­nan­dez no longer be­lieves Venezue­lans can solve on their own.

“In­ter­nal ne­go­ti­a­tions have failed,” he said. “The only way out of this cri­sis is through in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions, and the diplo­matic pres­ence in situ will al­ways be more use­ful.”

De­spite a col­laps­ing econ­omy and the elec­tion of a hos­tile new gov­ern­ment in Brazil, Mr. Maduro, a pro­tege of the late anti-U.S. pop­ulist Hugo Chavez, adopted a strik­ingly pug­na­cious stance ahead of in­au­gu­ra­tion fes­tiv­i­ties.

Far from pon­der­ing talks with Cara­cas’ restive neigh­bors, Mr. Maduro on Dec. 26 ac­cused neigh­bor­ing Colom­bia of sab­o­tag­ing his coun­try’s power grid and again hinted that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion was plot­ting an in­va­sion to re­move him from power.

“We have a very pow­er­ful en­emy, the ‘gringo’ em­pire,” he said dur­ing an event in western Venezuela. “Who­ever dares to in­vade Venezuela, our sa­cred ter­ri­tory, will meet a peo­ple with a ri­fle in hand and meet [armed forces] ready to fight.”

Ram­pant power out­ages in Zu­lia, a state whose oil re­serves alone are be­lieved to ex­ceed those of Ar­gentina and Mex­ico com­bined, were the re­sult of “ter­ror­ist at­tacks on the elec­tric sys­tem” by Colom­bians, the em­bat­tled leader claimed, fur­ther ratch­et­ing up ten­sions with Bo­gota.

Sup­port from Putin, Xi

Mr. Maduro’s ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to em­brace his iso­la­tion in the re­gion may be linked to his in­creas­ingly friendly ties with other au­to­cratic lead­ers, in­clud­ing Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jin­ping, Ms. Balling said.

“[It’s some­thing] the Maduro regime can count on,” she said. “They’re be­ing propped up by some very pow­er­ful coun­tries.”

Any hopes of call­ing in fa­vors with Bei­jing to put pres­sure on Cara­cas, though, are ham­pered by on­go­ing trade con­flicts and China’s strate­gic, long-term in­ter­est to tap into Venezuela’s vast nat­u­ral re­sources, Ms. Balling said.

Mr. Maduro has also found a close ally in Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, who, dur­ing a Dec. 3 visit to Cara­cas, slammed U.S. sanc­tions against Venezue­lan of­fi­cials.

“Venezuela is be­ing sub­dued, and Tur­key is on Venezuela’s side in this,” Mr. Er­do­gan said. “You can­not pun­ish an en­tire peo­ple to re­solve po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ments.”

Sign­ing a wide-rang­ing co­op­er­a­tion deal, he said his na­tion was will­ing and able to “cover the ma­jor­ity of Venezuela’s needs.”

Tur­key has been a key in­vestor in Venezuela’s gold sec­tor, which the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had added to its sanc­tions list in Novem­ber.

Com­mer­cial ties be­tween the two coun­tries are so tight that Turk­ish Air­lines de­fied the trend of other car­ri­ers — dozens of which have halted op­er­a­tions at Cara­cas’ Mai­que­tia air­port, reg­u­larly af­fected by black­outs and lack of run­ning wa­ter — to in­au­gu­rate five weekly non­stop flights to Is­tan­bul.

“It is ac­tu­ally an­other ex­am­ple of how Er­do­gan is get­ting away with a heck of a lot,” Ms. Balling said. “He’s that bad-boy NATO ally.”

Just how much Mr. Maduro will get away with in the first year of his sec­ond term, though, de­pends on just how fast Venezuela con­tin­ues to dis­in­te­grate. The In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund, Mr. Her­nan­dez said, puts next year’s in­fla­tion rate at 10 mil­lion per­cent, while the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion warns that refugee num­bers could dou­ble to 8 mil­lion within three years.

“What’s true is that coun­tries do not have an un­lim­ited ca­pac­ity of suf­fer­ing this much dif­fi­culty,” Mr. Her­nan­dez said.

“[But] the gov­ern­ment doesn’t seem to want to change the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal line it has main­tained un­til now.”

At least for the time be­ing, Mr. Maduro still ben­e­fits from a frac­tured op­po­si­tion, al­lies whose po­lit­i­cal sur­vival de­pends on unity — or the ap­pear­ance thereof — and an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity un­sure of just what to do with him.

Ul­ti­mately, his 15 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing un­der­lines that it is force, not pop­u­lar sup­port, that will pro­pel him to his sec­ond oath of of­fice on Jan. 10.

“The gov­ern­ment has suf­fi­cient strength to stay in power while the mil­i­tary sec­tor is back­ing it,” Mr. Her­nan­dez said. “It still has mus­cle, has force; what it doesn’t have is pop­u­lar back­ing.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

De­spite what he called the “bloody eco­nomic ag­gres­sion” from out­siders, Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro in­sisted the coun­try was united and gear­ing up for a year of sta­bil­ity.

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