BOGOTA, Colombia -- When Venezuelan diplomat Calixto Ortega arrived in Washington this summer, he was on a difficult mission: to repair a bilateral relationship strained by decades of mistrust and heated rhetoric.
He appeared to make some headway. In June, his government tapped him to head talks to exchange ambassadors with the United States for the first time since 2010. There was reason to hope that the nations, with deep trade and cultural ties, might overcome some of their differences.
But last week, Ortega was headed to the airport — one of six U.S. and Venezuelan officials expelled in the latest round of diplomatic bloodletting that put hopes of a rapprochement on ice.
What happened during the months since Ortega’s arrival depends on what capital you’re in. For the beleaguered administration of President Nicolás Maduro, the United States delivered a series of diplomatic insults and provocations at a time when both were tiptoeing into the relationship.
From shutdown-showdown Washington, Maduro’s decision to throw in the towel at the first tap on the jaw and then eject three diplomats on flimsy “sabotage” charges is a sign that he’s looking for scapegoats — not solutions — as his country spirals into an economic crisis.
The latest push for ambassadorial representation was troubled from the start.
Just a few weeks after the countries had formed a negotiating committee, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, during a Senate confirmation hearing, said the United States should keep “contesting the crackdown on civil society being carried out in countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia and Venezuela.”
By any measure, the remarks were mild. Just two weeks earlier, Maduro had called the U.S. “crazy” and “putrid” and said, “The North American Empire wants to spy on and control the entire world.”
But when the U.S. State Department reiterated Power’s remarks on July 19, Venezuela broke off talks, saying the statements were “unfounded” and “disrespectful.”
“When they correct themselves, we’ll be waiting for them with an outstretched hand and a smile as always,” Maduro said. But the apology never came, and the outstretched hand is now clenched.
That Venezuela would pull the plug so quickly was telling, said Patrick Duddy, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010.
“The notion that they would scuttle an effort to rebuild the relationship because they didn’t like a very brief remark by a single official — albeit a senior official — at a confirmation hearing argues pretty strongly that they were not committed to the effort,” he said.
But people who talked to Ortega, Venezuela’s chargé d’affaires in Washington until last week, said he had clear orders.
“I met with [Ortega] in Washington, and he certainly seemed serious,” said Charles Shapiro, U.S. ambassador in Venezuela from 2002 to 2004. “He had instructions to get relations bumped up to the full ambassadorial level.”
The next major wave of diplomatic malaise came last month, days before the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. Maduro was on his way to China on a state visit, and claimed that Washington had denied his aircraft permission to travel through U.S. airspace over Puerto Rico. He also said the U.S. was stalling on giving his delegates their visas to attend the U.N. session.