The so-called Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been on life support since Hugo Chavez was taken off it. The ugly, prolonged death of the “Bolivarian Revolution” hasn’t been a pretty thing to watch, but nor does the West seem all that interested in hastening the inevitable. Perhaps the White House shares the view of Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, that the United States is still more part of the problem than it is the solution to the region’s ills.
America’s sophisticated foreign policy establishment has an unattractive habit of taking the claims of scapegoating Latin American caudillos at their word. Views like those of TIME Magazine’s Karl Vick, who in March of 2015 wrote that Obama’s unilateral thaw in relations with Cuba has helped to isolate Maduro’s hardline leftist regime, rarely go challenged by fellow sophisticates in the foreign affairs circuit. That view was published just days after the president formally dubbed the Venezuelan government a threat to American national security – a prerequisite for issuing a set of narrow sanctions targeting seven government officials in Caracas. This was a half measure and one that came many months too late.
In February of 2014, violent protests erupted across the country. Following the death of their generalissimo, demonstrators demanded the “resurrection of democracy” in Venezuela and the resignation of Maduro and his government. They were gunned down in the streets. On the anniversary of that spasm of liberalism in one of South America’s most illiberal nations, violence again exploded onto the streets. This time, the bloodshed was intense, and the level of revolutionary sentiment held more promise than did the demonstrations of 2014. The conditions these demonstrators were protesting were worse, too. A collapse in oil prices had crippled the nation’s command economy. Crime rates were ballooning, and government cooperation with the cartels had grown overt. Shortages and corruption became the intolerable norm. Once again, thousands took to the streets. Once again, they were ruthlessly slaughtered.
There has been no recovery in Venezuela, and the nation is again teetering on the brink. Last year, the Venezuelan economy contracted by nearly six percent. The official inflation rate is near 180 percent, but the real rate of inflation is surely many times that. Food and medical shortages have reached intolerable levels, and the images of average Venezuelans rioting on the streets, looting shops, and hijacking food trucks have begun to trickle out of the country on social media venues. “Gloves and soap have vanished from some hospitals,” the New York Times reported. “Often, cancer medicines are found only on the black market. There is so little electricity that the government works only two days a week to save what energy is left.” This heart-wrenching dispatch revealed that deaths among newborns and mothers in hospital have spiked dramatically over the last four years.
Over the weekend, pro-and anti-government protesters began assembling again on the streets of Venezuela after Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency. Maduro insisted that opposition forces were “orchestrating foreign military intervention in Venezuela.” The stage is set for more bloodshed in the Bolivarian state.
American officials are not entirely silent about the crisis in Venezuela. Huddling with reporters in Washington, some unnamed U.S. officials warned that Maduro might not be in power for much longer. “The ice is cracking,” one unnamed U.S. official told Reuters reporters. “You know there’s a crisis coming.” Reuters reported that protests might spiral out of control or that the Venezuelan president could be removed by the military. Maduro, too, seems aware of just how precarious his position is. Last week, German Mavare, leader of the opposition UNT Party, was shot in the head and killed in the Venezuelan state of Lara. “A red bullet ended his life,” mourned opposition lawmaker Luis Florido.
Maduro has followed the banana republic playbook to the letter amid this latest outbreak of unrest. He blamed the United States for virtually all of his country’s woes – from its economic crisis, to consumer goods shortages, to the looting of supermarkets, to the price of oil, to even the ouster of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff following her impeachment. President Barack Obama appears to want to avoid to be seen as lending credence to any of these conspiratorial ravings. “The administration of President Barack Obama wants ‘regional’ efforts to help keep the country from sliding into chaos,” read the Reuters dispatch. The definition of insanity.
While American officials are content to work behind the scenes, Beijing is taking a front-and-center approach to stabilizing the region. China, which has already lent Venezuela approximately $50 billion over the last decade reportedly, recently agreed to a deal to ease the country’s burdensome debt payments. “This will give the country important oxygen to go forward,” said Venezuela’s Economy Vice President Miguel Perez. While China is giving the regime in Caracas all the “oxygen” it needs to lumber along and possibly extricate itself from yet another domestic crisis, why doesn’t Washington suck some of that precious O2 out of the room? What is stopping the president from stating clearly and unequivocally that socialism along the “Bolivarian” model is an irreparable disaster and thereby give democratic elements in the country some sign that the United States welcomes regime change in Venezuela?
The answer is likely that he has already sacrificed his credibility as chief spokesman for the American capitalist model. “You know, you’re a capitalist Yankee dog, or you’re some crazy communist that’s gonna take away everybody’s property,” Obama said dismissively in March to a town hall full of young Argentineans. “And those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation you should be practical and just choose from what works.” These are hardly quaint, anachronistic “intellectual arguments” in Venezuela. By shrugging his shoulders and drawing a value judgment-free moral equivalence between murderous socialism and free market capitalism as just two competing systems, Obama folded his best hand.
Rarely do presidents get three chances to make the same mistake. Instead of spending his final months in office touring the world’s few remaining communist nations and issuing oblique mea culpas for the Cold War-era policies of his predecessors, he could at least briefly reaffirm why it was the West that won that conflict. The Warsaw Pact didn’t collapse because NATO-led armored columns surged across Checkpoint Charlie. The Soviet Empire dissolved amid an explosion of righteous outrage by the long-suffering peoples of the Eastern Bloc’s tyrannies. The people of Venezuela are crying out, too. Obama seems content to pretend he doesn’t hear them.