US and Venezuela: Anatomy of a diplomatic breakdown

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.”

‘Crazy,’ ‘putrid’

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.

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.

Accusing Obama

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.

‘Sabotage’ claims

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.

There, they met with opposition lawmakers and civil society leaders. Venezuela said they were also meeting with striking steel-mill workers and providing money to opposition groups and factions interested in destabilizing the economy.

The government said the meetings, captured on tape, were tantamount to “sabotage,” and gave the officials 48 hours to leave.

Normal duties

Keiderling and the State Department said they were simply doing what all diplomats do: trying to get a lay of the land.

“Can you imagine the Venezuelan embassy in Washington trying to explain the [U.S.] government shutdown if they only spoke to the Democrats?” asked former ambassador Shapiro. Meeting with politicians of all stripes “is what foreign embassies do in Washington and Paris and everywhere.”

But the U.S.-Venezuela relationship isn’t normal, said Pedro Diaz-Blum, a former Venezuelan lawmaker who has spent more than a decade trying to improve bilateral ties.

“In a relationship where there isn’t trust, it was imprudent to have met with workers who were in the middle of a strike and with people from the opposition,” he said. “In countries with strong and consolidated ties, that would be absolutely normal. But the U.S. and Venezuela were just getting things off the ground.”

The day after Venezuela pulled the diplomatic trigger, the United States fired back, expelling three diplomats, including Ortega, Venezuela’s negotiation point-man.

“Reciprocation is the golden rule of diplomacy,” said Fernando Gerbasi, the former vice minister of Venezuela’s foreign affairs office.

For the moment, the two nations are stuck with each other. Venezuela is the United States’ 14th-largest trading partner and fourth-largest supplier of crude oil.

But Caracas and Washington emerged from last week hobbled, Gerbasi said.

“Both countries end up increasingly limited in their abilities to perform basic diplomatic functions,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wins here.”

Miami Herald special correspondent Andrew Rosati contributed from Caracas.