Mixed signals in recent days by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are helping embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to deflect attention away from the consequences of his misrule. With popular street protests across the country showing no signs of abating, the government of the late Hugo Chávez's successor appears to have no answers as to how to quell the discontent -- that is, beyond unleashing the blunt force of government-sponsored paramilitary gangs against the protesters.
Social media has been inundated with images of the violence being perpetrated against Venezuelan civilians. In response, Kerry has issued two formal statements (here and here), the second better than the first. In the second, he stated, "The government's use of force and judicial intimidation against citizens and political figures, who are exercising a legitimate right to protest, is unacceptable and will only increase the likelihood of violence. I call on the Venezuelan government to step back from its efforts to stifle dissent through force and respect basic human rights."
Yet a few days later on MSNBC, Kerry inexplicably muddled that message by changing the topic to the subject of the U.S.-Venezuela bilateral relationship, saying, "We have emphasized that we are looking to improve the relationship; we would like to see change.... This tension between our countries has gone on for too long in our view, but we are not going to sit around and be blamed for things we have never done."
Naturally, desperate to change the subject from barricades and bloody citizens in the streets, Maduro quickly pounced. He used a Feb. 26 national press conference to ostentatiously welcome Kerry's comments: "I salute here today the response of Secretary of State John Kerry. I propose a new stage in relations with the United States, and let us go together in search of that new era, without any issues." He also proposed that the two countries set up commissions to begin immediate talks.
Of course, the idea of a grandiose U.S.-Venezuela rapprochement in the middle of the biggest crisis for Chavismo in more than a decade passes no laugh test. But for a leader as isolated and weak as Maduro, such theatrics allow him to portray an image of calm and in control -- and agreeable. Suffice it to say, it is difficult to understand how making Maduro's life any easier serves U.S. interests.
Barack Obama's administration needs to decide what its position is regarding the current crisis in Venezuela. Does it support the legitimate aspirations of millions of Venezuelans for better lives and the full respect of their government? Or does it view the protests as little more than a troublesome workaround to developing a normal relationship with the Maduro government?
One would certainly hope it is the former. And the administration has the perfect opportunity early next week, when the Organization of American States has scheduled a special session to discuss the crisis in Venezuela (despite the Maduro government's best efforts to block the meeting).
In any case, what the administration should not do is anything -- symbolically or practically -- that helps a repressive, political polarizing, and destabilizing government stay in power. Ideally, the administration would find ways to ramp up the pressure against the Maduro government by raising the costs of continued violent actions against its people. This could be done by freezing Venezuelan assets in the United States, pulling visas from high-ranking officials, and holding human rights abusers accountable before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
As I wrote earlier this week, now is not the time for diplomatic feints and nods. A government that has singularly devoted itself to upsetting the regional consensus on behalf of democracy and human rights for the past decade is on the brink of collapse. We should not help it save itself.
Photo: LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images