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.
(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.
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.”
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.