By Michael McCarthy
After Venezuela’s 2015 began with signs of major shortages in basic goods and food items, renewed social unrest seemed inevitable. So far, mass demonstrations like those of last year have not fully developed, but that does not mean Nicolás Maduro’s government can take it easy.
In fact, Maduro—who is currently polling at 22 percent—is facing a different but equally painful headache on the international front. His government’s February 19 arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma on trumped up charges of plotting a coup drew fresh criticism from international actors, beginning with former American President Bill Clinton via Twitter that same day.
Over this past weekend, Maduro shifted gears from antics to purposeful and calculated action as his government detained four U.S. missionaries, along with a U.S. citizen described as a “pilot of Latino descent,” for allegedly partaking in “espionage activities.” His administration further used the occasion to respond to ‘targeted sanctions’ by the U.S. on human rights abusers with ‘sanctions’ of its own. On Saturday, the Venezuelan president announced travel bans on current and former U.S. officials, and the equalization of each country’s respective embassy staff. U.S. embassy officials in Venezuela will also need written permission in order to hold meetings and American citizens are now forced to obtain formal travel visas before visiting the country.
Increased salience of the U.S.-Venezuela relationship—the two countries have not had ambassadors in each other’s capitals since 2010—comes at a crucial moment: when pressure began to rain down on Maduro from other world power centers.
Before the U.S.-Venezuela relationship moved back to center stage, the European Union described the arrest of Ledezma as a “source of alarm.” Accompanying voices of outrage from the Latin American left—such as Chilean Senate President Isabel Allende, the daughter of left-wing hero Chilean President Salvador Allende, as well as Pablo Iglesias of upstart left-wing Spanish political party, PODEMOS—made for stinging rebukes by would-be sympathizers. A new, more agitated tone found in statements issued by the Brazilian foreign ministry, the President of Colombia, and the Peruvian foreign ministry suggests patience with the Maduro government among regional partners is running thin.
The tragic death of a 14-year-old protester last week from the impact of rubber bullets fired by the National Police in the south western state of Táchira also accelerated calls for international assistance. These developments have opened a previously discarded possibility—that a further crackdown by Maduro could have very serious geopolitical consequences, including the risk of isolating Venezuela from both Latin America and the world stage.
Once upon a time, the prospect of a Chavista government paying such international political costs for ethical overreach seemed very unlikely. In April 2002, Chávez survived a coup attempt tacitly supported by the Bush administration. As Maduro is trying to do now, Chávez spun the incident into a classic David-versus-Goliath narrative. With U.S. credibility at one of its lowest points during the Iraq War, many gave Chávez the benefit of the doubt that he faced more direct threats from Washington than what may have actually been the case.
Fast forward nearly a decade later as U.S.-Cuban relations begin to thaw and Maduro attempts to recover his country from a dramatic decline of oil prices, a new international juncture seems to be opening for not only Venezuela, but the Western Hemisphere more broadly.
The UNASUR working group for Venezuela, composed of the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador and coordinated by the body’s Secretary General, was active throughout last year. Along with the Vatican, UNASUR sponsored talks between Maduro's government and a coalition of opposition parties that began in April 2014 after the highly intense protests of previous months subsided. Opposition leaders left those talks feeling they did not receive a fair hearing, and a visit to Venezuela by the UNASUR working group is currently in the works.
Despite Maduro’s most recent domestic disputes, Venezuela continues to enjoy some degree of international support. Both CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations, and the ‘G-77 + China,’ an international forum of developing countries, criticized the Obama administration's ‘smart’ sanctions (visa restrictions and asset forfeitures) against accused human rights abusers in the Venezuelan government.
Now, with Venezuela going on the offensive, the question is whether the Obama administration will double down on its sanctions. While it is debatable whether the blowback from Maduro’s actions will be of great consequence to his popularity, the Obama administration is undoubtedly having second thoughts. Increased sanctions play into Maduro’s current narrative of being under attack from Washington but do the cons outweigh the pros of taking an even more substantial stand against human rights abuses? One thing seems certain: If the U.S. implements more sanctions, the chances for neighboring governments to take a more critical line against Maduro will decrease.
South-to-South diplomacy over regional efforts at integration and unity are only in their infancy and could easily be derailed by diplomatic disputes. For example, there could be some finger pointing between Venezuela and Mexico over which state faces a more serious human rights dilemma. For that matter, it would be counterproductive to turn otherwise constructive diplomacy into a matter of throwing stones at glass houses.
Despite such fluid recent developments, the opening of a new dialogue in the hemisphere has created a fortuitous moment to develop multilateral pressures on Venezuela. If new Vatican and UNASUR-sponsored talks come to fruition, will they be more inclusive? Can they influence Maduro to pull back and restore some sorely missing balance to its political system? And if not, can the U.S. triangulate to a position of influence through its talks with Cuba, Venezuela’s ally?
What is novel about the entire situation is that, even without the U.S. playing a robust role, signs point to international trends defining the terms under which Maduro acts. Such an environment creates great incentive for moderation, but it may be too late for his Venezuela to change course.
Michael McCarthy is a research fellow for the Center for Latin American Studies at American University. Follow him on Twitter, @macmac79.