Shadow Government

Venezuela's Street Protests Are Headed to a Violent End -- and Cuba is to Blame

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.


Shadow Government

Would You Release a Convicted Spy to Secure Middle East Peace?

I would, but I am not persuaded that is the question confronting the Obama administration. I think the real question it faces is: Would you release a convicted spy to get an extension on an arbitrary deadline on interim talks that show little prospect of succeeding, but show even less prospect if you don't release the spy?

Reports indicate that the Obama administration is seriously considering releasing Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy Department analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel back in the 1980s. The Israeli government has lobbied every president since, begging that they release Pollard. Every president, including presidents who were criticized for being too friendly with Israel, resisted those lobbying efforts and so Pollard has remained languishing in jail. The matter was brought up almost ritualistically in leader-to-leader encounters for years with little prospect of success. And now the rumors coming out of Washington suggest that a U.S. president has never been as close to releasing Pollard as President Barack Obama is right now.

Even stipulating Pollard's guilt, the case for releasing him is not absurd. He has served a long time and, though serving a life sentence, would be eligible for consideration under normal parole conditions in a few years. It seems far less of a concession today than it seemed in the mid-1990s, when CIA Director George Tenet reportedly threatened to resign if President Bill Clinton released Pollard. Moreover, Israel has repeatedly been asked to give up prisoners convicted of heinous crimes on behalf of the peace process -- indeed, one reason for considering the Pollard case now is that Israel is balking at releasing yet another tranche of prisoners, given how painful the last tranche had been. If Israel can be expected to give up convicted murderers, is it unreasonable to ask the United States to give up a convicted traitor?

No, not if doing so seals a final deal. I can imagine a hypothetical situation in which the long-sought final agreement -- one that resolves the so-called "right of return," the status of Jerusalem, the disposition of the Jordan Valley, the management of the Gaza Strip, and so on -- is within reach and all that is required is that Israel concede one more inch on some matter. To buy that inch, we might have to release Pollard and, even though that would mean releasing a convicted traitor, in that hypothetical scenario, I think most people would say the price was worth it.

That does not appear to be the case here. Are there credible indications that the two sides have moved substantially closer on the core issues which divide them? Does the Palestinian Authority look ready to make the painful sacrifices they would have to make to secure peace with Israel? Do things look any more promising on the Israeli side?

There is a real risk that the Obama administration will play a valuable one-time chit and buy very little for it -- perhaps a few months extension, but nothing more. The Palestinian side could well demand an equivalent concession and, having already sunk the costs so deeply in a quixotic attempt at forced-pace negotiations, how could the administration resist further concessions?

The risks for Israel may also be larger than they appear in this deal. While Israel views this case as a matter of justice, the American side would likely view this as a huge concession, one that warrants an equally large response from Israel. Even if Israel is unable to find or make the package of concessions that yields a final peace treaty, the Obama administration will expect something pretty big from Israel in return. Every subsequent Israeli action will be framed, "How could they do 'X' after we released Pollard?" The outrage in the Obama Administration if, say, Israel subsequently announced a new round of building on territory in dispute in the peace negotiations, would be significant, and could throw U.S.-Israeli relations back to the dark days of 2009.

I understand why Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly thinks this is a gamble worth taking. He has invested a considerable amount of personal energy and prestige in these negotiations and he doggedly pursued them when most experts thought they had little chance of succeeding. He is clearly invested in seeing them continue, and he has probably convinced himself that this is his own last chance at a deal. He may even be right about this being his last chance.

But I am not yet convinced that this is America's best chance at a deal, and so I am hesitant to play a card that previous administrations protected so carefully for so long.