LIMA - Last January, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that he and Venezuelan parliament president Diosdado Cabello were both the target of an assassination plan – without unveiling the conspirators’ identity.
In March, he said the Pentagon and the CIA were hatching a plan to murder opposition leader Henrique Capriles and frame him for it. In April, he said U.S Ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich and Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega were conspiring with Salvadoran hit men to assassinate him.
This month, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was added to the conspiracy theory list. He also said that the spirit of dead President Hugo Chavez had visited him in the form of a little bird. If we add all those stories together, we might suspect that Nicolas Maduro is suffering from paranoia and has lost his sense of reality.
At first glance, Maduro’s ill-tempered reaction to a statement by Peruvian Foreign Minister Rafael Roncagliolo asking Unasur, the Union of South American Nations to call for “tolerance and dialogue” in Venezuela only reinforces this impression. Maduro called the Venezuelan ambassador in Lima for some tough talks and ended up settling the matter with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala himself.
"You may be Peru's foreign minister, Roncagliolo, I know you well, but you cannot give your opinion on Venezuela," Maduro said in a televised speech. "I hope that is not the position of President Ollanta Humala."
Roncaglioli has since resigned "for health reasons."
Peru currently holds the chair of Unasur. After Maduro was elected president in April, Unasur indeed made a Roncagliolo-inspired statement calling for dialogue and the “preservation of a climate of tolerance for the good of the entire Venezuelan people.”
I would suggest however that there is a clear political calculation behind all of Maduro’s actions. Even if the strain of the mess he is in causes him to make mistakes, Maduro is essentially a rational political actor.
Let's take for example his visceral and disproportionate reaction to Roncagliolo’s statement. Like Fidel Castro and Chavez showed, there is nothing less novel during difficult times than to invoke the specter of foreign conspiracies and threats in an effort to try and unite the home front.
This is particular necessary as Maduro’s leadership is being pilloried, even from within his own political movement. In great part, the reason for this is because the double-digit polling lead Maduro enjoyed during the campaign transformed into a 1.5% margin victory against Capriles.
However, the response to the Roncagliolo statement serves a different purpose on the external front. It is there to prevent other countries from agreeing with the Peruvian foreign minister, and avoid the risk of Unasur interfering in the Venezuelan crisis.
In this context, Maduro’s recent tour of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay serves the same purpose. Maduro’s trip coincided with another statement by a Unasur minister. Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro recently said there was no need for another Unasur meeting to discuss the political situation in Venezuela. The meeting had been called… by Peru. “The situation has developed positively, political tensions have eased and social tensions have practically disappeared,” said Almagro.
Neutralizing the neighbors
Maduro’s behavior is aimed at making sure there is no regional intervention in the Venezuelan situation. Every time it seems there could be some meddling from South American neighbors, the Venezuelan government makes a minor concession to neutralize its neighbors’ intrusion.
For instance, after the elections, the partial vote recount that opposition leader Capriles has asked for and threatened to appeal to Unasur if he didn’t get – and that Supreme Court had initially said was “impossible” – was finally approved by the Venezuelan National Election Board (CNE) just hours before the Unasur summit.
Thus, the recount did not look as though it was the product of international pressure, but a governmental initiative instead. As a result, the summit limited itself to declare it took “positive note on the CNE’s decision.”
Similarly, Maduro’s reaction to the Rancogliolo statement led to a “gentlemen’s agreement” to restore legislative work in the Venezuelan parliament. Since the election, the pro-government majority within the parliament had been barring the opposition from participating in parliament and refusing to pay the opposition MP’s salaries.
This is the carrot-and-stick method. The greater the threats or the bigger the stick the Venezuelan government brandishes, the smaller the carrot or peace offering has to be.
A final element that has to be taken into account is the foreign aid Venezuela provides to its allies – there is no shortage of examples. After the Uruguayan foreign minister’s positive statement, some were quick to point out that 40% of the oil Uruguay consumes is imported from Venezuela under very preferential terms.
In itself this is proof enough of the influence that Venezuela has on Uruguay. On the other hand, the same thing could be said about foreign aid doled out by the U.S. government. A 2006 USAID document states: The 1950 Point Four Program focused on two goals: Creating markets for the United States by reducing poverty and increasing production in developing countries; diminishing the threat of communism by helping countries prosper under capitalism.
Clearly, Venezuela is not the only country with a political agenda when granting aid. That being said, the purpose of that help does not usually tend to be something as crass as the buying of consciences. We should remember that until recently, USAID operated in Bolivia, headed by proudly socialist President Evo Morales.