This is not a U.S.-Venezuela issue. It is an issue between Venezuela and its people.” This curt dismissal by White House Spokesman Jay Carney of President Nicolás Maduro’s charges of U.S. plotting against Venezuela epitomizes the different approach between the Bush and Obama administrations on Venezuela.
I was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from early 2002 to late 2004.
Both then and now the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela — Hugo Chávez then, Nicolás Maduro now — tried to blame the United States for the short-lived coup in April 2002 and the prolonged demonstrations now.
For most of the Bush administration, the United States allowed itself to be provoked by Chávez. In so doing, we became a foil that Chávez used to build support.
Chávez taunted the “devil” George Bush. He made racist and misogynist remarks about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He allied himself with Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, Alexander Lukashenko and Viktor Yanukovych. Chávez never met a bad idea he didn’t like.
While we did not plan or participate in the 2002 coup, we got too happy, too fast when he was ever-so-briefly deposed.
It was clear in 2002 that Venezuela was headed for economic disaster and an increasing restriction of civil and democratic rights. I urged Chávez to visit Chile where he could see a democratic, left-of-center government having enormous success in reducing poverty. He wasn’t interested.
By speaking out in support of democratic principles, the Bush administration gave ammunition to Chávez, the canny politician and showman. His “Venezuela must be respected” line had great resonance with his supporters. By late 2005 the Bush administration toned down the rhetoric.
Maduro, a paranoid Chávez loyalist elected by a razor-thin majority in a disputed election a year ago, inherited an economic mess from the charismatic Chávez, and he’s made it worse.
Maduro campaigned as the “son of Chávez” — he even claims the spirit of Chávez appeared to him as a little bird — and has done everything to associate himself with the Chávez legacy, including sleeping in Chávez’s tomb. By promoting himself as a clone of el comandante, Maduro does not have the freedom to maneuver to modify policies, which even Venezuela’s oil riches cannot make work.
At 56 percent and climbing, Venezuelan inflation is highest in the world. According to the Venezuelan Central Bank, 28 percent of all consumer items are in short supply. The homicide rate has quadrupled in 15 years. Venezuelan-American analyst Moisés Naim observes that the shelves are bare and the morgues are full.
Beginning Feb. 12, students began demonstrating to protest inflation, shortages and out-of-control crime. With no military experience himself, Maduro ordered in police and armed civilian thugs. The situation escalated as more people joined the students to protest the economic situation, crime and government repression.
Maduro ordered the arrest of Leopoldo López, one of the opposition leaders, turning a politician into a martyr and leading to more protests. Every day, Twitter and YouTube carry video clips of the National Guard beating demonstrators, shooting pellets and tear gas canisters and kicking in doors.
Repression and force have provoked rather than dissuaded. These are the most sustained protests in Venezuela since 2003.
The Maduro government blames the protests on “fascists” and, of course, the United States. He ordered the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats, claiming disingenuously that these consular officers organized the protests.
On Tuesday, Maduro suddenly shifted course, naming an ambassador to the United States but not bothering to inform the United States. The nominee shouldn’t pack his furniture just yet. I doubt he will receive his U.S. visa anytime this decade.
What started as a protest against crime and bare supermarket shelves has morphed into a struggle for freedom of speech and freeing a wrongly imprisoned leader. As the protests move into the third week, at least 13 have people have been killed.
There are no pending elections to defuse the tension. The international community is not rushing to send in teams of foreign ministers or secretaries general to negotiate a compromise.
The opposition wants Maduro to resign. Maduro has no intention of going anywhere.
The Obama administration is right to emphasize that “the future of Venezuela is for the Venezuelan people to decide.”
Charles Shapiro is president of the Institute of the Americas, a think tank at the University of California San Diego and a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.