Tillerson handled Venezuela deftly — until he fumbled

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, shown in January, seemed to obliquely urge the Venezuelan military to stage a coup.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, shown in January, seemed to obliquely urge the Venezuelan military to stage a coup. Getty Images

Sometimes it takes an oilman to undermine an oilman.

Reminiscent of J.R.’s tactics to edge out brother Bobby from the family Ewing Oil company in the fictional ’80s “Dallas” TV show, America’s chief diplomat and Exxon oilman extraordinaire is upping the pressure on Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

One possibility? A little military coup.

In an odd geopolitical plot twist, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to almost encourage Venezuelan military officers to oust President Maduro. Stay tuned to see what happens!

Venezuela has long accused the United States of conspiring to remove its defectively elected leadership, but President Obama — and President George W. Bush before him — actively denied complicity in previous coup attempts. That charade is done.

The United States now seems to be saying, “Someone should get rid of these bad guys before things in-country stumble into total chaos — and maybe we’ll take some oil in the process.” The Secretary of State says whether “the military is the agent of change — I do not know.” His words were as close to a diplomatic wink and nod as possible.

Tillerson’s six-day swing through a bunch of Latin American countries not entirely hostile towards the United States was meant to reassure them not to fear President Trump’s style, warn them about rapidly increasing Chinese influence in the region, and build a coalition of the understanding and self-interested to help nudge or knock Maduro from his post. Countries on the itinerary include those Trump has identified as nations home to rapists, exporters of illegal immigrants, and those that are actively supporting drug cartels.

Harmonizing a unified Latin America policy and voice against the bile-deserving Maduro is tough enough, but it is even harder when the songbook is led by a slightly tone-deaf conductor. Unfortunately, Tillerson touted the “success” of America’s assertive 19th century Monroe Doctrine that stated the United States is the boss of Latin America — a reviled policy and sore historic point south of the border.

Tillerson was trying to illustrate how “Imperial” China is working to turn Latin American countries into Chinese neo-colonial states and away from Uncle Sam. His claim that China’s new and extensive loans and infrastructure projects in the Americas make these countries further beholden to Beijing is valid. The secretary, however, lost both his credibility and intended audience at “Monroe.” Naturally, a collapse of the Maduro regime might cause Venezuela to default on the tens of billions of dollars China has “lent” in exchange for below-market oil contracts.

There is no love lost for Maduro in Venezuela’s surrounding countries, but regional leaders also know that siding with the United States is not a great political move, as reflected in the latest Gallup polls showing Trump’s approval rating in Latin America has dropped to 16 percent.

Oil rich and cash-starved Venezuela is no longer on the verge of collapse, it is already economically imploding. The enduring socialist nightmare that began with President Hugo Chávez and continues with his party functionary and handpicked successor, Maduro, has the country experiencing night sweats and fever dreams. The mismanaged state and maligned government has put the “Mad” back into Maduro.

In the time it takes to read this column, Venezuelan prices have may have inched up. Inflation is expected to hit 13,000 percent in 2018. Such a hyperinflationary environment makes food, goods and medicine expensive and scarcer by the day. It puts citizens on edge and drives otherwise law-abiding citizens toward crime.

Three million people have already left the country because of violence and hunger, many of them to neighboring Colombia. Eggs have become the barter currency of the realm as real money — the Bolivar — is not worth the paper on which it is printed. While people scramble their valuable eggs, the government scrambles to find a new, stable “petro” cryptocurrency underpinned by millions of barrels of oil.

Oil is everything. Venezuela was a founding member of the oil energy cartel OPEC and has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Venezuela is also the poster child nation of the so-called “resource curse” — where natural resources drive rampant government corruption while failing to develop national industries or services that deliver for the people. Instead, the high price of oil has artificially propped up this otherwise inefficient and failing nation for too long.

Which is why Tillerson is threatening to put the squeeze on Venezuela by threatening Caracas with oil export sanctions.

If Maduro can create money that matters, bring food back to store shelves and handily win his hastily scheduled and rigged April re-election bid, he might be able to fool some of the people enough of the time to hang on to power. The stakes are considered too high and the geopolitical game too grave, however, for the United States to hang back and watch Venezuela devolve of its own accord.

The Trump administration may no longer be lining up for nation building around the world, but it certainly is not above advocating for regime change. Maduro might consider binge watching past episodes of “Dallas” before his season ends.

Markos Kounalakis a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

(c) 2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau