It’s a shame that Venezuela just severed diplomatic and economic ties with Panama, because their respective presidents – Nicolás Maduro and Ricardo Martinelli – have a lot in common.
Yes, I know that Maduro is a radical socialist and former bus driver. And that Martinelli is a right-wing supermarket tycoon.
But they’re both intolerant ideologues who believe, among other retro-anti-democratic notions, that folks should be thrown in the pokey for saying or writing anything that insults leaders like them. (Venezuela’s legislature has actually codified that thinking; Panama’s fortunately has rebuffed Martinelli’s attempts to do the same.)
Either way, the two men are hemispheric adversaries who like to call each other “lackeys” of either the United States or Cuba. So the diplomatic divorce that Maduro announced Wednesday – in peevish response to Martinelli’s call for the Organization of American States (OAS) to get involved in Venezuela’s anti-government protests crisis – isn’t all that surprising.
Nor is the chilling effect that it’s likely to have on the OAS this week as it convenes in Washington, D.C., to discuss what – if anything – to do about the bitter clash between Maduro and his opposition, which has killed at least 18 people. Most analysts, including Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, don’t expect much to come of the OAS meeting.
“I think it’s very unlikely that [it’s] going to produce any meaningful results,” Shifter told me. “There’s not much support among many [member] countries to confront Maduro. They’re nervous about him [because] he’s so unpredictable, and his breaking relations with Panama will only aggravate that.”
Shifter cites others reasons – including a fear among many smaller Latin American and Caribbean countries of being cut off from Venezuela’s oil largesse, or anxiety among most governments in the region about alienating leftist voters.
But even if Maduro’s opponents have little hope of ousting him – he still has the support of about half the country, especially among his base of poorer voters – the angry street demonstrations that began early last month show little sign of ending.
And the longer they last, the more Maduro’s security forces and neighborhood watch organizations – already widely condemned for their heavy-handed response to the unrest – risk further sullying his international image.
Which means at some point sooner than later, some outside entity needs to prod Maduro and his foes – who for their part need to more sharply define the aim of these protests – to a negotiating table to hash out what sparked the student-led outburst in the first place: Venezuela’s deep economic and social crises – which have saddled the hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation with South America’s highest inflation and murder rates – and the authoritarian left-wing agenda the protesters accuse Maduro’s government of ramming down the country’s throat.
If not the OAS – which Maduro distrusts anyway as yet another puppet of the Americans, who he insists is behind the protests to begin with – then who? Maduro suggests the South America regional body known as Unasur – but the Venezuelan opposition distrusts it as a puppet of the regional left.
Perhaps neighboring Colombia, but it’s already locked in peace talks with Marxist guerrillas and has a presidential election coming up in May. Or neighboring Brazil, but it’s racing to finish soccer World Cup preparations for this summer, and President Dilma Rousseff’s got anti-government street protests of her own to deal with.
Shifter thinks the Vatican may be the best bet, given Pope Francis’ Latin American bona fides and his appeal to both Maduro and opposition forces.
“I think the Pope would have that credibility,” Shifter said. “He could play that role.”
Whoever emerges to play it, the task of mediating in a country as fiercely polarized as Venezuela is likely to be as nerve-wracking as a late-night walk through Caracas’ violent crime-plagued streets – or as frustrating as finding cooking oil or toilet paper on many of its grocery store shelves.
Then again, Maduro showed signs of some mature flexibility on Thursday when he reportedly sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN – the same yanqui network he’s accused for weeks of whipping up the unrest, and which he’s threatened to chuck out of Venezuela.
In that regard, observers like Shifter are right: Maduro can be remarkably unpredictable. But ever since he was elected President last year – to succeed his mentor, Hugo Chávez, who died a year ago this week – that erratic nature has usually worked against Venezuela. If the CNN interview is the start of a trend, maybe Maduro’s character could finally work in the country’s favor.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.