By Jessica Canchola
To say anti-American sentiment is running high in Venezuela at the moment would be a bit of an understatement. Over the past month, the United States has been linked to a potential coup de tat that led to the arrest of Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezema, resulting in a forced reduction in its Caracas embassy staff, and the ban of former President George W. Bush by the Venezuelan government because of alleged human rights violations while he was in office. But the true source of tension here isn’t anything the United States has done – at least not initially. Unlike what Venezuela’s anti-American rhetoric would suggest, Caracas’s smear campaign against the United States actually has little to do with Washington. Instead, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is using the United States as a diversionary scapegoat to turn attention away from the shortages and repression that has proliferated under his administration.
Unfortunately for the thousands of Venezuelans withering under Maduro’s rule, President Obama’s March 9 declaration that explicitly defined Venezuela as “an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States” has only given more fodder to Maduro’s diversionary campaign against the United States and perhaps permanently shifted attention away from their struggles.
President Maduro has cooked up a diversion nearly as big as the domestic problems that threaten to usurp him in a desperate attempt to maintain power over Venezuela. Despite being former President Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor, the uncharismatic Maduro has been unpopular with the Venezuelan people since the beginning of his presidency. When the price of Venezuelan oil dropped from $96/barrel in September 2014 to $38/barrel in January 2015, Maduro’s meager approval rating dropped with it. Because Venezuela’s socialist economy greatly depends on oil revenue, Venezuela’s already struggling living standards took a major hit. Shortages for everything from flour to diapers have become chronic. Military personnel have begun overseeing food rationing. And dissent to Maduro’s rule proliferates. The increasingly vocal and brazen opposition has begun to erode Maduro’s power, but rather than give heed to protesters and fix Venezuela’s endemic economic and social problems, Maduro has instead chosen to create a mirage implicating internal dissenters and the United States to maintain his rule over Venezuela.
Maduro’s diversionary campaign first began with an internal purge. Protesters publicly bemoaning everything from Venezuela’s escalating crime rates to extreme economic shortages have been accused of plotting to overthrow the government and have subsequently been violently silenced; as many as 40 political dissenters have been murdered as part of Maduro’s brutal crackdown since last April. President Maduro next turned his sights to Antonio Ledezema, Mayor of Caracas. Ledezema was arrested on February 19 for allegedly conspiring with the United States to stage a coup against Maduro’s regime. By linking Ledezema’s supposed treason with American machinations, Maduro intends to reignite lingering Venezuelan animosity for American imperial interventions of the past and attract Washington’s attention. Unfortunately, the White House fell for it. After Ledezema was whisked away to a high security prison to await his trial, the United States quickly denounced Maduro’s accusations. White House officials condemned his violations of human rights, declaring Venezuela a threat to American national security, and imposing sanctions against several key ministers in the Venezuelan government. Up to now, the United States’ actions have only given Maduro more ammunition for his distraction away from Venezuela’s headaches. On March 9, Maduro lashed out at the United States on Venezuelan state television, calling Obama’s declaration an attack on him, his government, and Venezuela, and vowed to fight the American “imperialist” threat.
By responding to Maduro’s accusations, the United States is letting itself be played. Maduro is simply using the White House’s words to strengthen the distraction he’s already created. If the United States truly wants to fight Maduro’s humanitarian breaches and force Maduro to resolve Venezuela’s internal problems, it needs to realize that it can’t confront Maduro directly without being spun into his rhetorical, anti-imperialist web. Instead, the United States should work with regional powers also concerned with Maduro’s repressive measures. Maybe the White House won’t get to bask in the self-congratulatory glory for being the lone, outspoken adversary against Maduro’s socialist, despotic rule, but at least it might help alleviate the Venezuelan people’s hardships at the hands of their troubling president. And isn’t that what’s truly important here?