Venezuela: Obama into the Fray

By Michael M. McCarthy

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The March 9 decision by the Obama Administration to sanction Venezuelan government officials – this time freezing the U.S.-based assets of seven of them – appears to be drawing Washington into a conflict it recently viewed as a problem for Latin America to solve.  Implementing the “targeted sanctions,” the U.S. government made the determination that Venezuela’s “situation” was a threat to its national security.  Such a determination is not unique – Washington continues to declare Colombian narco-trafficking a national security threat – but the language in this case is widely seen as inflammatory because the cited source of the threat is President Maduro’s government itself.

  • The action generated a predictably exaggerated reaction from Caracas.  Maduro, who faces an economic crisis with no end in sight and has approval ratings of 22 percent, took the sanctions as an opportunity to change the conversation.  He branded them as “hypocritical,” describing Washington as the “real threat” to world order and criticizing Obama as returning to Cold War-style tactics.  On March 14 the armed forces conducted hyped-up exercises to “counter” the U.S. threat and the day after Congress granted Maduro Decree Powers through an “Anti-Imperialist Ennabling Law for Peace” that lasts through the end of the year.
  • Reactions to the U.S. measure varied greatly among opposition leaders. Governor Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s candidate in the last two presidential elections, echoed the U.S. position that the sanctions are targeted against “the corrupt government elite,” rather than the country or the Venezuelan people.  Governor Henri Falcón, a former military officer who left chavismo’s ranks in 2010 criticized them as “disrespectful.”  The Mesa de Unidad coalition stressed that Venezuela is “not a threat to any country.”  Whereas more hardline opponents are behind the scenes happy about stepped-up U.S. involvement, the more moderate camps – including Capriles’s – appear puzzled about the timing because Washington’s actions effectively moved Maduro to the safer ground of defending sovereignty.
  • The sanctions ignited strong criticism from some regional players.  Nonetheless, they renewed UNASUR’s efforts to mediate, which had gotten off to an unpromising start in Caracas on March 6.  An emergency March 14 UNASUR meeting in Quito issued two declarations – one strongly rejecting the sanctions, even calling for Obama to rescind them, and another reiterating support for the UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper’s pursuit of “the most open dialogue possible” in Venezuela.

The Obama Administration’s stated reasons for the sanctions – measures similar to those proposed in the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Law” last year – are not surprising.  Washington has watched with dismay as Maduro has cracked down on opponents, alleged U.S.-supported coup-plotting, and hemmed in U.S. embassy personnel and even tourists with increasingly tough limitations on their activities.  With the opening to Cuba ongoing, the Obama administration may have calculated it could try to appease conservatives in the U.S. Congress and endure a hit to its regional image for imposing sanctions.  Emboldened by UNASUR’s criticism of the sanctions and Europe’s unwillingness to follow Obama’s lead, Maduro will almost certainly continue efforts to play the anti-imperialist card for a while.  The U.S. has shifted the action back into the bilateral relationship, breathing new life into a previously closed chapter in the Venezuelan crisis.

March 16, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

Venezuela: More of the Same Tragedy

By Michael McCarthy*

Embed from Getty Images

The gruesome murder of a pro-government Socialist Party deputy and the decision by the opposition coalition’s Mesa de Unidad Democrática (MUD) to suspend a rally in light of the tragedy foretold an opportunity to restart a national dialogue.  But unlike in January 2014, when the murder of beauty queen Monica Spears and her family created momentum for talks on security between the government and opposition, an unfortunate and familiar downward spiral has begun.  High-level government officials’ provocative accusations that the murder of Robert Serra, one of the Venezuelan Parliament’s youngest members, was the work of right-wing actors have deepened yet again the political polarization in Venezuela.  UNASUR’s new Secretary General, former Colombian President Ernesto Samper, surprisingly weighed in, strongly implying that Colombian paramilitaries were involved in Serra’s murder.  The government has long attempted to link members of Venezuela’s opposition with paramilitary groups, and Samper’s impartiality will forever be questioned by the opposition if the allegation is not proven. At Serra’s funeral, President Maduro described the MUD’s new Executive Secretary, Jesús “Chuo” Torrealba, as a piece of “garbage.”  Maduro’s name-calling is another example of the government using polarization as a tool to encourage supporters to close ranks.

Before the stabbing deaths of Serra and his female companion by unidentified assailants, the government was attempting to build momentum to resume the UNASUR-sponsored talks that had been frozen since May 3.  Samper had informed the MUD and opposition members of his intention to restart talks, and had described Maduro as “a man of dialogue, a man of peace,” adding that there were good prospects for “working a lot of things for the good of the region.”  But at this point any good will among the parties seems to have evaporated.  Moreover, for MUD secretary Torrealba, who originally said his goal was to change the MUD’s profile to mobilize a wider base of support, the primary task remains building MUD unity at a moment when different factions of the opposition are promoting widely varying initiatives.  Torrealba has little negotiating experience and does not enjoy the same access to elite sectors as his predecessor did.  His precarious position calls into question whether the MUD could negotiate as a coalition even if talks restarted.

Once again, centrifugal forces seem to be prevailing in Venezuela.  This trend raises the question of whether Venezuelan society is not only “wounded and resentful,” as Jesuit Political Scientist Arturo Sosa says, but on the verge of an estallido social – social explosion.  Mechanisms for mediating conflict through political discussion remain in place and appear unlikely to disappear completely, but confrontations are likely to continue flaring up regularly.

*Michael McCarthy is a CLALS Research Fellow.

October 7, 2014