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.

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.

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