Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s decision to arrest a leading opposition figure and accuse him of being a lackey of the U.S. “empire” is a tried and true method of diverting public attention from food shortages, the lack of toilet paper and rolling cutoffs of electricity across the country. Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor, perfected the art of distracting attention by playing the victim of an alleged U.S. plot to assassinate him. Both have reveled in expelling the few U.S. diplomats who remain in the country, as Maduro did this week in kicking out three consular officials.
Despite the predictability of the attacks and the danger the current unrest poses, the U.S. has few easy policy options in dealing with Maduro. Few in Washington dispute the high level of criminality in the Maduro government, the complicity of senior officials in the cocaine trade and the role Venezuela has played in helping Iran break international sanctions.
The question is how to show support for democratic values without giving Maduro and his allies more ammunition to mobilize hardcore backers and increase repression. The added level of complexity is that Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States, providing 906,000 barrels a day, according to the Department of Energy.
The two main camps are: Those who feel anything the United States says publicly or does against Maduro will fan populist anti-U.S. feelings and strengthen the government’s hand (largely in the State Department); and those who view silence as complicity with the violence, abuses and censorship that the Maduro government is carrying out (largely the Republican foreign policy establishment and members of both parties on the Hill).
So far the Obama administration has been strongly in the first camp, issuing a few statements calling for dialogue and urging a peaceful resolution to the conflict while going through the pro forma retaliatory expulsions of Venezuelan diplomats after their American counterparts were ejected. Supporters of this tack argue that the creaky 21st Century Socialism edifice that Chávez built is falling under its own weight of inefficiency, corruption and mismanagement. Any thing perceived as U.S. interference would strengthen the regime and allow it to lash out at home and abroad. The loss of almost a million barrels of oil a day, should the Maduro government choose to turn off the spigot, could have a significant economic impact on the United States in exchange for little.
The counter-argument is that U.S. oil imports from Venezuela are down 35 percent over the past decade and now, with an oil surplus on the market, the U.S. could cut off its Venezuelan imports at almost no economic cost. The loss of revenue would cripple the Maduro government, they argue, hastening its collapse. The Venezuelan oil company PDVSA, already under international sanctions for illegally helping Iran evade sanctions, would have a difficult time selling its petroleum elsewhere because much of the heavy crude can only be refined in the United States at this time. Such an action would send an unequivocal message to the authoritarian regimes in Latin America that the United States will play hardball in defense of democratic values.
Over time and faced with numerous provocations the Obama administration has consistently opted for a non-confrontational stance, much to the dismay of many in the opposition in Venezuela and in its allies in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. It is not likely to be different this time despite increasing pressure in Congress.
Douglas Farah is a national security analyst in Latin America, focusing on corruption, failed states and transnational organized crime. He was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post for 20 years and has worked in and followed Venezuela since 1990. He is the president of IBI Consultants and a senior non-resident associate of the Americas Program at CSIS, a Washington-based think tank.