While the conflict in Ukraine continues to preoccupy the minds of most U.S. policymakers and pundits, two months of violent street protests have racked Venezuela, a country much closer to home and where the United States has strategic interests that are just as significant. Between its important role in the global oil supply chain and its emergence as a key narcotics trafficking corridor, what happens in Venezuela matters to the United States.
Last week, President Nicolás Maduro announced the arrest of three Air Force generals who he accused of plotting to overthrow his government. This time, it doesn't appear to be just one more of his loony conspiracy theories -- it is well known that the Venezuelan military is divided over the disastrous direction of the country under Hugo Chávez's hand-picked successor.
Indeed, it is clear Maduro cannot rely on the military to confront the protestors. Instead he has had to use poorly trained National Guardsmen and paramilitary thugs operating outside any institutional channels. How much longer others in the military will tolerate the chaos in the streets is probably the biggest the question in Venezuela today -- there simply appears to be no other viable resolution. The spontaneous street protests that began in early February were a reaction to 15 years of intolerant and polarizing chavista rule in which all outlets for the peaceful expression of dissent were systematically shut off to half of the population.
Maduro now claims he wants to have "a dialogue" with the protestors, but that is merely a stalling tactic designed for international consumption. He considers the protestors "fascists" and their grievances illegitimate. Besides, it is unclear just who to "dialogue" with -- the protests are not a creation of the organized opposition, and no one controls the off switch.
Moreover, Maduro doesn't need a staged dialogue to resolve the crisis; the grievances are known to anyone who has read an article about Venezuela in the past year. Even he can figure that one out. First, he should demobilize and disarm the paramilitary groups and cease with the incendiary rhetoric against his fellow citizens. Then he could unilaterally quell the tensions by committing to credible and irreversible reforms that would restore to those who disagree with the government the institutional channels to express dissent. This would mean reforming the subservient Supreme Court, the electoral authority, the legislature, and the media, while at the same time reducing the state's stranglehold on the private sector so it can start to replenish empty consumer shelves.
The problem is that such reforms are anathema to Maduro's Cuban minders, who exert inordinate influence over his decisions -- a dynamic that remains one of the protestors' primary grievances. The Cubans know that they, along with the $6 billion a year in Venezuelan giveaways to the mendicant Castro brothers, are hugely unpopular and rightly see an end to such benefits, including two-thirds of the island's oil needs, as an existential threat. To cede any ground to the opposition directly threatens the survival of the Castro regime. The violence will continue in Venezuela because the Cubans cannot have it any other way.
With no meaningful changes in the chavista model expected, no international intercession on the horizon, and the Obama administration MIA, instability in Venezuela will continue careering forward. No one should be surprised then if sectors of the military intervene to restore order. Such a turn of events would, of course, be far from ideal, but let's not cry crocodile tears about the bad old days of military coups in Latin America when Venezuelans are dying today in the streets, and no one else is lifting a finger to bring the carnage to an end.
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