Venezuela Blames America for a Conflict It Knows Nothing About and Has Nothing to Do With

After nearly two months of protests, Hugo Chavez’s successor claims unrest is the fault of the U.S.

A demonstrator and national guardsmen during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas on March 16.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
March 20, 2014, 1 a.m.

Protests are en­gulf­ing a coun­try that has been plagued by to­tal­it­ari­an rule for dec­ades, leav­ing dozens dead and with no end in sight.

Not Ukraine. It’s Venezuela.

Over the week­end, the death toll rose to 29 after a Venezuela Na­tion­al Guard cap­tain was shot in the head dur­ing demon­stra­tions in the crisis that has las­ted in the Lat­in Amer­ic­an coun­try for the last six weeks. Thou­sands have been ar­res­ted, hun­dreds in­jured, some even tor­tured. It’s rocks and Mo­lotov cock­tails versus wa­ter can­nons and tear gas.

Over­shad­owed by oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al con­cerns in the news in re­cent weeks, de­vel­op­ments sur­round­ing the con­flict in Venezuela have com­par­at­ively gone un­noticed. But for a con­flict that Amer­ic­ans seem­ingly don’t know about, nor likely care about, the United States is cer­tainly bear­ing a lot of cri­ti­cism for it in Venezuela.

The Man Be­hind It All

(Chin­a­Fo­to­Press/Getty Im­ages)Meet Pres­id­ent Nic­olas Ma­duro. He’s a 51-year-old former bus driver, protégé of the late Venezuelan dic­tat­or Hugo Chavez but without his pop­u­list ap­peal, and known for his non­sensic­al rants (“Mul­tiply ourselves, like Christ mul­ti­plied the pen­ises”).

After barely win­ning the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion last year, his ad­min­is­tra­tion has been heav­ily cri­ti­cized for vast prob­lems across the Lat­in Amer­ic­an coun­try, which is one of the largest oil pro­du­cers in the world. In­fla­tion is over 50 per­cent, food short­ages are rampant, and the crime rate re­mains one the highest in the world.

Col­lege stu­dents took to the streets in early Feb­ru­ary fol­low­ing the sexu­al as­sault of a fe­male stu­dent near the Colom­bi­an bor­der — demon­stra­tions that were quickly tamped down by the Na­tion­al Guard. Protests only grew from there, as both stu­dents and hard-line right-wing act­iv­ists have tar­geted crime and the eco­nomy.

Ma­duro finds him­self on the ropes, and he is blam­ing the United States for it all.

But Why Amer­ica?

Bey­ond think­ing that Pres­id­ent Obama wants to as­sas­sin­ate him, Ma­duro ac­cuses the U.S. of fund­ing the op­pos­i­tion and giv­ing act­iv­ists guid­ance for a coup d’état.

The U.S. is clearly a scape­goat in this situ­ation, a dis­trac­tion from the real prob­lems Venezuela faces. Ma­duro lam­basts the U.S., which re­mains that coun­try’s No. 1 oil ex­port mar­ket, call­ing it a pup­pet mas­ter and la­beling Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry a “mur­der­er.”

State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Jen Psaki calls the claims “base­less and false.”

Demon­strat­ors, some starving be­cause of food short­ages, are protest­ing price con­trols and prob­lems in the sup­ply chain. More than 25 per­cent of Venezuelans live un­der the poverty line, even though Venezuela is in the top 10 of oil-pro­du­cing coun­tries in the world.

In­deed, the re­la­tion­ship between the U.S. and Venezuela has been rocky for a while, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 14 years of Chavez’s rule (he called Pres­id­ent Bush the dev­il dur­ing a 2006 speech to the United Na­tions).

But with the elec­tion of Ma­duro, the U.S. hoped for stronger ties. It hasn’t happened, and now re­la­tions ap­pear to be at a new low. Neither coun­try has ex­changed am­bas­sad­ors since 2010. In Feb­ru­ary, Venezuela ex­pelled three Amer­ic­an dip­lo­mats from Ca­ra­cas, ac­cus­ing them of plot­ting against the Venezuelan gov­ern­ment and re­cruit­ing stu­dents to protest. Shortly af­ter­wards, the U.S. ex­pelled three Venezuelan dip­lo­mats from Wash­ing­ton.

“Re­gret­tably, Pres­id­ent Ma­duro keeps choos­ing to blame the United States for things we are not do­ing or for things that they are un­happy about in their own eco­nomy and their own so­ci­ety,” Kerry said on MS­N­BC re­cently. “We are not go­ing to sit around and be blamed for things we’ve nev­er done and see our dip­lo­mats de­clared per­sona non grata and sent out of the coun­try for things they didn’t do.”

What Can the U.S. Do?

“We are not go­ing to sit around and be blamed for things we’ve nev­er done.”

There’s little the U.S. can do but cri­ti­cize Ma­duro for crack­ing down vi­ol­ently on pro­test­ers. On Monday, Psaki re­peated the U.S. line on the con­flict:

“The Venezuelan gov­ern­ment should re­lease those it has un­justly jailed, al­low cit­izens to ex­press their free­dom of speech, lift re­stric­tions on free­dom of the press, and en­gage in an in­clus­ive dia­logue with Venezuelans across the polit­ic­al spec­trum,” she told re­port­ers.

The U.S. has also called on the Venezuelan gov­ern­ment and op­pos­i­tion lead­ers to come to­geth­er through a third-party me­di­at­or to re­solve the crisis. But Psaki said there were no plans for the U.S. to be that third party.

Ma­duro isn’t call­ing for the U.S. to be the third party, either. To him, Venezuela and the U.S. are the two main parties, re­quir­ing a com­mis­sion for “peace and sov­er­eignty” me­di­ated by the Uni­on of South Amer­ic­an Na­tions.

“Pres­id­ent Obama: Give peace, and re­spect, a chance, and let’s set the found­a­tion for a new type of re­la­tions between the U.S., Venezuela, and if pos­sible, Lat­in Amer­ica and the Carib­bean,” Ma­duro said on Fri­day.

But there is no chance the U.S. would agree to such an ar­range­ment. The Sen­ate has already passed a res­ol­u­tion con­demning the crack­down on demon­strat­ors, warn­ing against fur­ther hu­man rights vi­ol­a­tions.

Even Jimmy Carter is get­ting in­volved, writ­ing in let­ters to gov­ern­ment and op­pos­i­tion lead­ers that he would like to meet with them on his trip to South Amer­ica in April.

It’s not in the best in­terest of the U.S. to get heav­ily in­volved. Venezuela re­mains a large ex­port­er of oil. Mean­while, both China and Cuba have taken Ma­duro’s side in the con­flict, which could prompt an even lar­ger in­ter­na­tion­al battle with Amer­ic­an in­volve­ment.

For now, the only thing the U.S. can do is sit back and get blamed for a con­flict it really has noth­ing to do with.

The Man Behind It All

(Chin­a­Fo­to­Press/Getty Im­ages)Meet Pres­id­ent Nic­olas Ma­duro. He’s a 51-year-old former bus driver, protégé of the late Venezuelan dic­tat­or Hugo Chavez but without his pop­u­list ap­peal, and known for his non­sensic­al rants (“Mul­tiply ourselves, like Christ mul­ti­plied the pen­ises”).

After barely win­ning the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion last year, his ad­min­is­tra­tion has been heav­ily cri­ti­cized for vast prob­lems across the Lat­in Amer­ic­an coun­try, which is one of the largest oil pro­du­cers in the world. In­fla­tion is over 50 per­cent, food short­ages are rampant, and the crime rate re­mains one the highest in the world.

Col­lege stu­dents took to the streets in early Feb­ru­ary fol­low­ing the sexu­al as­sault of a fe­male stu­dent near the Colom­bi­an bor­der — demon­stra­tions that were quickly tamped down by the Na­tion­al Guard. Protests only grew from there, as both stu­dents and hard-line right-wing act­iv­ists have tar­geted crime and the eco­nomy.

Ma­duro finds him­self on the ropes, and he is blam­ing the United States for it all.

But Why America?

Bey­ond think­ing that Pres­id­ent Obama wants to as­sas­sin­ate him, Ma­duro ac­cuses the U.S. of fund­ing the op­pos­i­tion and giv­ing act­iv­ists guid­ance for a coup d’état.

The U.S. is clearly a scape­goat in this situ­ation, a dis­trac­tion from the real prob­lems Venezuela faces. Ma­duro lam­basts the U.S., which re­mains that coun­try’s No. 1 oil ex­port mar­ket, call­ing it a pup­pet mas­ter and la­beling Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry a “mur­der­er.”

State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Jen Psaki calls the claims “base­less and false.”

Demon­strat­ors, some starving be­cause of food short­ages, are protest­ing price con­trols and prob­lems in the sup­ply chain. More than 25 per­cent of Venezuelans live un­der the poverty line, even though Venezuela is in the top 10 of oil-pro­du­cing coun­tries in the world.

In­deed, the re­la­tion­ship between the U.S. and Venezuela has been rocky for a while, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 14 years of Chavez’s rule (he called Pres­id­ent Bush the dev­il dur­ing a 2006 speech to the United Na­tions).

But with the elec­tion of Ma­duro, the U.S. hoped for stronger ties. It hasn’t happened, and now re­la­tions ap­pear to be at a new low. Neither coun­try has ex­changed am­bas­sad­ors since 2010. In Feb­ru­ary, Venezuela ex­pelled three Amer­ic­an dip­lo­mats from Ca­ra­cas, ac­cus­ing them of plot­ting against the Venezuelan gov­ern­ment and re­cruit­ing stu­dents to protest. Shortly af­ter­wards, the U.S. ex­pelled three Venezuelan dip­lo­mats from Wash­ing­ton.

“Re­gret­tably, Pres­id­ent Ma­duro keeps choos­ing to blame the United States for things we are not do­ing or for things that they are un­happy about in their own eco­nomy and their own so­ci­ety,” Kerry said on MS­N­BC re­cently. “We are not go­ing to sit around and be blamed for things we’ve nev­er done and see our dip­lo­mats de­clared per­sona non grata and sent out of the coun­try for things they didn’t do.”

What Can the U.S. Do?

“We are not go­ing to sit around and be blamed for things we’ve nev­er done.”

There’s little the U.S. can do but cri­ti­cize Ma­duro for crack­ing down vi­ol­ently on pro­test­ers. On Monday, Psaki re­peated the U.S. line on the con­flict:

“The Venezuelan gov­ern­ment should re­lease those it has un­justly jailed, al­low cit­izens to ex­press their free­dom of speech, lift re­stric­tions on free­dom of the press, and en­gage in an in­clus­ive dia­logue with Venezuelans across the polit­ic­al spec­trum,” she told re­port­ers.

The U.S. has also called on the Venezuelan gov­ern­ment and op­pos­i­tion lead­ers to come to­geth­er through a third-party me­di­at­or to re­solve the crisis. But Psaki said there were no plans for the U.S. to be that third party.

Ma­duro isn’t call­ing for the U.S. to be the third party, either. To him, Venezuela and the U.S. are the two main parties, re­quir­ing a com­mis­sion for “peace and sov­er­eignty” me­di­ated by the Uni­on of South Amer­ic­an Na­tions.

“Pres­id­ent Obama: Give peace, and re­spect, a chance, and let’s set the found­a­tion for a new type of re­la­tions between the U.S., Venezuela, and if pos­sible, Lat­in Amer­ica and the Carib­bean,” Ma­duro said on Fri­day.

But there is no chance the U.S. would agree to such an ar­range­ment. The Sen­ate has already passed a res­ol­u­tion con­demning the crack­down on demon­strat­ors, warn­ing against fur­ther hu­man rights vi­ol­a­tions.

Even Jimmy Carter is get­ting in­volved, writ­ing in let­ters to gov­ern­ment and op­pos­i­tion lead­ers that he would like to meet with them on his trip to South Amer­ica in April.

It’s not in the best in­terest of the U.S. to get heav­ily in­volved. Venezuela re­mains a large ex­port­er of oil. Mean­while, both China and Cuba have taken Ma­duro’s side in the con­flict, which could prompt an even lar­ger in­ter­na­tion­al battle with Amer­ic­an in­volve­ment.

For now, the only thing the U.S. can do is sit back and get blamed for a con­flict it really has noth­ing to do with.

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