Venezuela is on the Cusp of Change—Now Let’s Not Mess it Up

By Matt Purple

The Latin American left has long been a burr under America’s saddle.

Funded and promoted by the Castro regime in Cuba, socialist parties from Argentina to Brazil to Venezuela love to shake their fists at the hemispheric superpower to the north. When President Bush tried to ink a free-trade agreement with Latin America in 2005, he was sharply and publicly rebuked by Argentinian president Néstor Kirchner. A year later, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was even more unvarnished: Bush, he said, was “the devil.”

Today, the Latin American left has fallen on hard times. Kirchner is gone, and Argentina’s new center-right government welcomed President Obama in March. President Dilma Rousseff, of Brazil’s Workers’ Party, has been suspended from office over corruption allegations. And socialism in Venezuela is facing its most insurmountable challenge ever, as a perfect storm of dried-up oil revenues, massive government mismanagement, and an arid drought threatens to consume Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro.

It’s difficult to fathom just how sharp the pain is in Venezuela. Once an economic leader in Latin America, the nation has literally run out of food, water, and toilet paper. The IMF projects that inflation in Venezuela will surge to 720 percent this year. Caracas is now the murder capital of the world (outside of war zones like Syria) as desperate Venezuelans strapped of essential goods resort to thievery and worse. At hospitals, newborns die regularly and surgeons cleanse their hands with seltzer water.

Politically, there is turmoil. Last year, the moderate Democratic Unity Roundtable ended the socialists’ legislative majority for the first time since Chavez entered from stage left. But there’s still Maduro to contend with, and though the president’s approval rating has plunged to 15 percent, he’s taken a number of executive actions to buttress his own power. He also owns the judiciary, which has blocked several Democratic Unity reforms. The moderates are now organizing a referendum to recall Maduro. Protesters supporting both sides have spilled into the streets.

U.S. officials are watching Venezuela warily, wondering whether a major Latin American player a short plane ride away is about to collapse. Several hawkish commentators are already demanding action, with the Washington Post cryptically calling for a “political intervention.” This is bad advice. We don’t need to sit cross-armed while Caracas goes to hell—if it’s accepted, the United States should provide medical aid, for example—but we shouldn’t go on the offensive against Maduro or be seen actively aiding his opponents.

An intervention would play into Maduro’s narrative that the Democratic Unity are American stooges and Venezuela’s woes are exclusively the fault of the United States. Whether we like it or not, anti-Americanism is still an integral part of Venezuela’s civic religion. Walls in Caracas bear graffiti exhorting the “gringos” to buzz off, and protests feature red placards that blare: “Yankee, Go Home!” Chavez, the post-Guevara poster boy for Latin American anti-imperialism, is still regarded fondly by many, even if his successor is not. And the opposition, though well to the right of the socialists, is less pro-American conservative than pro-Venezuelan democrat.

Maduro understands that his only hope is to portray himself as the lesser of two evils against the allegedly American-puppeteered opposition, even if that means scaring his country into a militaristic frenzy. It’s a familiar formula: when the economy goes south, resort to nationalism. Last week, Maduro ordered military drills in case of a “foreign intervention.” It’s not an invasion from Guyana he’s worried about.

President Obama has stepped into this bear trap before. Last year, he issued an executive order that absurdly denounced Venezuela as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and imposed sanctions on key leaders and businessmen. It was a flub: the rhetoric was too strong, the economic prohibitions were too weak, and Maduro had a field day warning that the U.S. was trying to influence the impending elections.

The only way Maduro and his regime can survive is if Venezuelans are persuaded the United States poses a greater threat than the atrocious economy. That’s not likely, but we shouldn’t give Maduro any help either. After 14 years of socialism, Venezuela is finally about to change. Let’s get out of the way and let it happen.

Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and deputy editor at Rare Politics. 

This Piece was originally published by Red Alert Politics on May 31, 2016. Read more HERE

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