Venezuela Violence and Latin America's Divide

The outbreak of serious political violence in Venezuela has illuminated the ideological fracture that divides Latin America and thwarts regional efforts to increase economic development through cooperation in trade and investments. Another reminder came last week when the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between United States, Mexico, and Canada celebrated its 20th anniversary as an engine of growth that has produced, as of last year, a total annual trade of $17 trillion, making it one of the world’s largest trade unions, comparable to the European Union. In contrast, over the same two decades, the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), the main South American regional integration pact, involving Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela, has bogged down in economic disorder and internal political disputes that prevent opening up those economies through free trade with European and Asian partners.

The growing political violence in Venezuela, where at least 10 demonstrators were killed in the past week during protests against the leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro, has its roots in the country’s calamitous economic situation. Venezuela, once the wealthiest South American country with vast oil resources, is suffering under runaway inflation of 57 percent a year, the highest rate in the world. Electrical blackouts are frequent and there is a severe shortage of consumer goods, from food to toilet paper, because of populist economic policies that are hostile to free trade and private enterprise. This is the ideological choice of Venezuela’s governing elite, political descendants of the late President Hugo Chávez, who until his death last March modeled his government on Cuba’s one-party system of authoritarian socialism. Yet his nation is now protesting against shortages, as well as the regime’s repression of dissent. A change of policies is necessary to restore political calm and economic prosperity, and that is what the protesters demand.

The problem does not stop at Venezuela’s borders, though. It is contagious throughout Latin America. Since Chávez launched the leftist fantasy called “Socialism of the 21st Century,” Venezuela has poured billions of dollars into subsidizing oil supplies for Cuba, the mecca of the movement, and financed adepts of the so-called Bolivarian Alliance throughout the region from Argentina to Bolivia to Nicaragua. For ideological reasons, most of the Latin American “left” now provides unconditional support for Maduro with arguments that present Venezuela as a country where the state benefits the poor and rejects free market capitalism while aligning with the likes of Iran and Syrian in taking a stand against “American imperialism.” Fortunately there’s also another set of countries on the other side of Latin America’s political divide who reject this socialist line as outdated and detrimental to genuine economic development. This group, made up of Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, has formed a free trade region called Alliance of the Pacific, with Costa Rica soon to be a member. This South American trade and investment alliance is in close contact with Nafta. Both groups want to expand global trade through negotiations with European and Asian regional groups that are anxious to facilitate commercial exchanges and private investment. This is just the opposite of what the protectionism of Mercosur has been doing, and this ideological divide is as deep and pronounced as the economic outcomes of the two approaches. The notion that the Bolivarian model enjoys widespread popular support in Latin America also suffered a major setback in Ecuador on Sunday when voters in Quito, the capital, and Guayaquil, the major economic city, elected mayors that oppose President Rafael Correa, a vocal backer of Venezuela’s chavista regime.

The turmoil in Venezuela puts regional relations to a severe test, and also puts the role of the aging and authoritarian Castro regime in stark relief. President Maduro has hotly rejected advice from President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia that his government open a political dialogue with the opposition. Instead, he has unleashed thugs from the country’s security apparatus, including teams of gunmen on motorcycles, to violently repress the student demonstrators. There is little doubt that the repression and the police tactics are backed by Cuban military advisers who are embedded in Venezuela’s security forces. For its part, Cuba has a vital interest in the survival of a friendly government in Venezuela to ensure the flow of cheap oil into the island country. Commenting on this bond, Moisés Naím, a noted specialist in international affairs of Venezuelan origin, wrote in a blog post: “Surprisingly, the bravery and sacrifices of the Venezuelan students may have consequences that go beyond their country. To confront the government of Maduro is to confront the grotesque influence of Cuba in Venezuela. Without the immense economic aid that Venezuela provides, the Cuban economy would have already collapsed. That would accelerate the change of regime on the island.”

The symbiotic Cuba-Venezuela relationship is the far-reaching dimension of the Venezuelan conflict that the Obama administration should be watching. US Secretary of State John Kerry has issued a slap on the wrist to Maduro, saying that the official repression of peaceful protest is “unacceptable,” but this amounts to a stern finger-wagging that will be even less effective than Obama’s red line on Syria. The administration has also failed to show much appetite for addressing the ideological divide now threatening the region at large. Kerry announced last fall, with a singular lack of timing, that the US shall no longer maintain the Monroe Doctrine, by which the US—and later all the American republics—for decades refused to permit foreign powers from outside the western hemisphere to take sovereign control of any American territory. The doctrine helped Washington establish trade sanctions against Cuba in the early 1960s as a punishment for Castro’s Soviet ties, but the cause is not as strong as it once was. A concerted “progressive” effort in the US, Europe, and Latin America now argues that the sanctions have made little progress in restoring democracy in Cuba, and that active commercial and information exchange would do more to reform the country’s authoritarian system. That may be a good idea some day, but for now sanctions remain the best non-military hope of prying Cuba loose from its half century of Castroite rule. Washington forgets this reality, and its interest in the regional schism, at its own peril.

Unfortunately, with or without the Monroe Doctrine, the US is not currently welcome as a settler of disputes in Latin America. It could however support mediation in Venezuela between the Maduro government and the nonviolent opposition, with emphasis on genuine democratic rights. If the entrenched chavistas are ready to have a dialogue on Venezuela’s future, one of the mediators that could be called upon is Pope Francis, a native of Argentina who is trusted by an ample majority in the heavily Catholic region. Francis closely follows social conditions in Latin America and will soon receive a group of Argentine politicians, representing President Cristina Kirchner and her opponents, to encourage a national agreement on policies that can recover Argentina’s troubled economy. The pope is said to be deeply concerned about a social explosion in Argentina if the Kirchner government fails to control the country’s inflation, and the violence in Venezuela has now become another example of conflict produced by a failure of governance. Before it explodes further into an outright bloodbath, voices of mediation need to be brought to bear.


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