The State Department maintains that it struggled to meet Venezuela’s changing and last-minute demands. The fact that Maduro was traveling in a Cuban aircraft — not the regular presidential airplane, which Caracas suggested had been intentionally damaged during maintenance — also caused complications.
In the end, Maduro cancelled his U.N. appearance, saying he had been warned of plots to generate violence in New York that might have put his life at risk. Although he named the instigators and accused President Barack Obama of turning a blind eye, he never provided proof.
The U.S. State Department would not comment for this report, citing the government shutdown.
To some, Maduro had to rush home to deal with the growing crisis — not save his life.
Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela is struggling to keep its economy afloat. Inflation is running at 45 percent a year — its highest level since the mid-1990s — and the Central Bank’s scarcity index has almost doubled since a year ago. Power outages are rampant.
That’s all bad news for Maduro, who hopes to prove that he is a worthy heir of the late President Hugo Chávez by winning municipal elections Dec. 8.
Maduro, who narrowly won a contested presidential election in April, has blamed his economic woes on “sabotage” and “economic warfare” organized by the opposition and directed out of Washington and Colombia.
It is an old script. Chávez blamed the United States for backing the 2002 coup that briefly ousted him, and often accused the Imperio Yankee of trying to kill him and derail his socialist revolution.
That the United States has a long history of meddling in the region — supporting coups and backing dictators in Chile, Nicaragua and Guatemala, among others — gave the allegations resonance.
But it is not clear whether Maduro has the charisma to carry that storyline.
On a recent weekday, Jesús Contreras, a 60-year-old clothing salesman, was at the Bicentenario in Caracas — a sprawling warehouse that sells subsidized food and appliances. It’s the Bolivarian Revolution’s answer to Costco.
Standing in a line that stretched hundreds of feet, winding in and out of aisles, he was facing a 45-minute wait to buy a few pounds of beef. He said the Bicentenario was one of the few places where beef was still available.
“There were shortages and lines before, but never like this,” he said. Asked whether the lines were the product of economic sabotage, he shook his head. “Those are just political lies by Maduro,” he said.
But others buy into the government’s position.
Andrea Monstarios, 36, is a member of the national militia sent to Bicentenario and other stores to run the registers and keep fights over food and toilet paper from breaking out.
“There are people who want to sabotage the country, taking more than they need,” she said, as she checked shoppers’ bags against receipts. “There’s more than enough food to go around. People come here and often buy four times what they need; it’s hoarding.”
It was in this context that, in late September, the three U.S. embassy officials, including Chargé d’Affaires Kelly Keiderling, who ran the embassy in the absence of an ambassador, traveled to Bolivar state.