In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Venezuela Vice President Maduro will raise anti-U.S. rhetoric — for now

With record inflation and skyrocketing crime rates, Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolas Maduro’s best bet to win Venezuela’s upcoming elections will be to campaign on late President Hugo Chávez’s memory, and to raise tensions with Washington.

He has already started.

On Tuesday, shortly before announcing Chávez’s cancer-related death, Maduro — the Venezuelan government’s candidate for elections expected within the next 30 days — suggested that the United States had “inoculated” Chávez’s 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 Maduro’s accusations. It has categorically denied having caused Chávez’s death, and called the charge “absurd.”

Interestingly, Maduro and the U.S. State Department’s 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. “It’s disappointing. But we remain interested in having a productive relationship with Venezuela.”

Jacobson didn’t want to speculate on Maduro’s 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 Cuba’s military government, does not have Chávez’s charisma, and does not have a record to run on. And with Venezuela’s inflation and crime rates reaching record highs, his best hope to win the election is capitalizing on Chávez’s 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, “I’m 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 wouldn’t 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 Chávez’s 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. It’s 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 Chávez’s petro dollars to keep the island’s economy afloat — and the Cuban regime’s 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.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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