With record inflation and skyrocketing crime rates, Venezuelas Vice President Nicolas Maduros best bet to win Venezuelas upcoming elections will be to campaign on late President Hugo Chávezs memory, and to raise tensions with Washington.
He has already started.
On Tuesday, shortly before announcing Chávezs cancer-related death, Maduro the Venezuelan governments candidate for elections expected within the next 30 days suggested that the United States had inoculated Chávezs with the cancer.
At the same time, he expelled two U.S. diplomats from Venezuela. Maduro was in full campaign mode when he made those claims, U.S. officials say. The vice president, a former bus driver and union leader who was designated by Chávez as his political heir, needs to cast himself as a hard-line anti-imperialist leader both to keep the Chavista movement united, and to rally Venezuelans behind him against an imaginary U.S. threat, they say.
The Obama administration has turned the other cheek on Maduros accusations. It has categorically denied having caused Chávezs death, and called the charge absurd.
Interestingly, Maduro and the U.S. State Departments top official in charge of Latin American affairs, Roberta Jacobson, had discussed improving bilateral relations during a telephone conversation as recently as late last year.
In a Nov. 21 telephone call initiated by Jacobson, Maduro had suggested restoring the two countries ambassadors. Jacobson, in turn, had proposed a step-by-step approach to upgrade relations, starting with counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism cooperation measures, the U.S. official said at the time.
On Wednesday, I asked Jacobson why she thinks Maduro made his claim earlier this week that the U.S. government had inoculated Chávez with cancer.
We find it really unfortunate that at a time when we were, and are, seeking a more productive relationship with Venezuela, they use this kind of rhetoric publicly and expel two of our officials, Jacobson said. Its disappointing. But we remain interested in having a productive relationship with Venezuela.
Jacobson didnt want to speculate on Maduros motives, but other well-placed Venezuela watchers in Washington see it is as an obvious electoral ploy.
Maduro, a former bus driver who is very close to Cubas military government, does not have Chávezs charisma, and does not have a record to run on. And with Venezuelas inflation and crime rates reaching record highs, his best hope to win the election is capitalizing on Chávezs popularity, and showing that he is as tough on the Gringos as Chávez was, they say.
The harder days in U.S.-Venezuelan relations are not behind us, but ahead of us, says Carl Meacham, Americas Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., and until recently a senior analyst with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Maduro is shoring up political support within Chavismo, Meacham added. His charges against the United States and his expulsion of the two U.S. diplomats were his way of telling his followers, Im like Chávez. We can expect his rhetoric to get worse in coming weeks.
My opinion: I agree that Maduro is likely to raise his anti-imperialist rhetoric during the campaign, but I wouldnt be surprised if he resumes his amicable dialogue with the Obama administration afterward should he win the elections, as now seems likely.
Right now, Maduro is following Chávezs script of provoking confrontations and inventing domestic and foreign conspiracies, so as to present himself as the protector of the fatherland and cast his political rivals as alleged U.S. stooges. Its a script that Chávez followed for the past 14 years, and that worked well for him.
But Maduro is pretty much managed by remote control from Cuba which has depended on Chávezs petro dollars to keep the islands economy afloat and the Cuban regimes top priority will be helping Maduro consolidate power at home, and maintaining stability in Venezuela.
Cuba will probably tell Maduro, You have a divided Chavismo, growing economic problems and a serious crime epidemic on the streets. The last thing you need now is it to open a new front by stirring up trouble with Washington.
So Cuba will be among the most interested in preventing a larger U.S.-Venezuelan confrontation. But before getting better, U.S.-Venezuelan ties are likely to get worse.