The Obama administration is quietly nudging the Vatican, as well as European and regional allies, to support negotiations aimed at easing the devastating economic and political crisis roiling Venezuela.
Any appearance of direct U.S. involvement would inflame tensions between the country’s fiery leftist president, Nicolas Maduro, and the growing but badly divided opposition seeking his ouster.
Maduro is so distrustful of Washington that even public statements of concern by U.S. officials risk giving him ammunition to aim at what he regularly denounces as “U.S. interventionism.”
“It is a very fine line that the U.S. government has to walk,” said Risa Grais-Targow, Latin America director of the Eurasia Group, a risk assessment company. “It has to remain behind the scenes…. Maduro will always use the United States as a scapegoat and blame it for his country’s problems.”
Maduro will always use the United States as a scapegoat and blame it for his country’s problems.
U.S. officials disagree as to whether Venezuela faces a potential collapse, or could stagger on indefinitely. But by any measure, one of the world’s most oil-rich countries has become one of the poorest and most dysfunctional over the last few years.
Severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods, sky-high inflation, daily power blackouts, a soaring foreign debt and rampant violent crime have beset the nation of 30 million people.
Many of the Venezuelans who supported Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late strongman Hugo Chavez, are still behind the president, polls show.
But their loyalty is fading amid the growing hardships, helping to fuel a public campaign to recall Maduro and allow new presidential elections.
A mostly elite opposition made surprise gains in parliamentary elections in December. It now claims to have gathered tens of thousands of signatures to demand a recall.
But they led to an unusually nasty and public spat between Maduro and the head of the Organization of American States, or OAS, who called for an emergency meeting that ultimately could lead to the rare move of suspending Venezuela from the regional body.
In a May 18 letter to Maduro, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro complained that the Venezuelan leader was acting like a “petty dictator.”
In response, Maduro told Almagro to shove his complaints “where the sun doesn’t shine,” in a polite and paraphrased translation from Spanish.
Many Latin American leftists see the OAS as a tool of Washington, in part because successive U.S. governments kept communist-ruled Cuba out of the organization for decades. (The OAS recently reinstated Cuba’s membership, but it declines to participate.)
Maduro held a rally this week to paint the OAS rebuke as a nefarious threat from abroad, a common political theme in Venezuela.
Instead, the most promising diplomatic initiative has come from elsewhere and with discreet U.S. urging.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry telephoned Zapatero last week to voice support. Later, the State Department, which has not had a U.S. ambassador in Caracas in six years, issued a carefully worded statement.
“The Secretary reiterated that the United States supports political dialogue and peaceful, democratic solutions and reaffirmed that any U.S. involvement would only be in support of an agreed-upon Venezuelan solution consistent with constitutional principles,” the statement said.
U.S. officials also have sought participation by the Vatican, which has shown a willingness under Pope Francis to step into thorny political and diplomatic disputes.
President Obama credited Francis with sponsoring the secret negotiations that moved Washington and Havana to restore diplomatic relations last year after half a century of bitter antagonism.
As the humanitarian crisis deepens in Venezuela, Roman Catholic bishops are likely to report back to Rome the urgent need for relief.
Venezuela controls the world’s largest reserves of crude and until recently was the third or fourth top supplier of oil to the United States.
But Venezuela has had difficulties pumping oil and getting it to market. In addition, plummeting oil prices have depleted Caracas’ budget and forced it to choose between servicing its unwieldy foreign debt and importing food and other consumer goods.
So far and to their surprise, industry analysts say, the Maduro government is paying its debt in an effort to avoid default this year.
Maduro is trying to delay any recall effort until next year, experts say. By then, he will have served enough of his six-year term to avoid new elections that he could well lose.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials recently warned that Venezuela was on the verge of collapse, and that Maduro increasingly faced the threat of being ousted in a palace coup or even a popular uprising.
“You can hear the ice cracking,” one of the officials said.
Other administration officials, however, paint the panorama as bleak but not necessarily doomed. Maduro continues to control most levers of power, including the judiciary, and has managed to block legislation and threatened to jail opponents.
Socialist, anti-U.S. governments have ruled Venezuela since Chavez came to power in 1999, prevailing over a brief 2002 coup that Chavez blamed on Washington.
Maduro, a former bus driver and Chavez’s handpicked successor, was elected in 2013, a month after the more charismatic Chavez died.
Maduro’s political demise has been repeatedly predicted, but just when is anyone’s guess. Diplomats say recent protest demonstrations that plunged Caracas, the capital, into chaos would probably have to snowball more massively to finally pull hard-line Chavistas from Maduro’s camp.
In the meantime, the diplomats say, daily hardships for ordinary Venezuelans are likely to only worsen, and channels for negotiation will remain narrow.
As for the OAS dispute, the body’s permanent council issued a declaration Wednesday supporting the Zapatero efforts and calling for “a course of action that will assist the search for solutions to the situation through open and inclusive dialogue.”
For now, any move to suspend Venezuela, which several diplomats said was a long shot anyway, is on hold.