Venezuela: As protests grow more violent, should neighbors weigh in? (+video)

Members of the Union of South American Nations meet today to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. With at least 21 dead amid antigovernment protests, will Venezuela get further regional backing?

By , Correspondent

Students throwing rocks and homemade firebombs clash with police who try to disperse them with tear gas and water cannon.

As violence intensifies in Venezuela amid month-long antigovernment protests, concern over instability in the oil rich nation is demanding the attention of the region. But Venezuela's neighbors, many of which have integrated economic or security interests with this South American country, are wary of angering Caracas, which has rejected any interference in its domestic unrest.

At least 21 people have died and hundreds more have been wounded in protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Protesters say they are exercising a legitimate right to voice dissent while the government claims it is part of a US-backed plan to destabilize the country.

As clashes mount, and as reports of violent tactics by protesters, government forces, and third-party, pro-government militias increase, observers are asking if it is time for the international community to unite in encouraging concrete steps toward calm in Venezuela.

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The handful of countries that have spoken out in recent weeks – calling for peace and talks – were met with Venezuelan reactions that ranged from cutting off all diplomatic ties (Panama) to kicking out embassy staff (the US) to stern warnings (Colombia and Chile).

Last week, the DC-based Organization of American States (OAS) convened at the behest of Panama to discuss the problem and issued a lukewarm statement supporting the Venezuelan government. Today, the foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have called an emergency meeting – encouraged by Venezuela – to address the growing conflict.

"The meeting ...will tell us a lot about how far South Americans are or are not willing to go in talking to one another about matters traditionally considered to be sovereign," wrote Julia Sweig, director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a newspaper column published in Brazil today.

The meeting of only South American leaders, a forum initiated by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2008, is expected to release a statement of support for President Maduro.

Venezuela’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Panama last week after it called for the OAS gathering sent a clear message to neighbors, says Julia Buxton, a Venezuela expert at the Central European University.

"It was a warning shot to other countries not to meddle in what Venezuela considers internal affairs," Ms. Buxton says.

'Rhetorical support?'

Governments around the region including Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina have commercial, trade, and political interests with the government of Venezuela that have kept their responses to recent violence muted, analysts say. A somewhat muffled call from Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos for dialogue and an offer to help was met with a cutting retort from Maduro, who said that "Venezuela's problems will be solved by Venezuelans." 

Colombia is particularly sensitive to Venezuela’s reaction as Caracas is acting as an observer in ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the leftest FARC rebels. Venezuela was instrumental in bringing the two sides – which have been in conflict for more than 50 years in Colombia – to the negotiating table.

Brazil which had gained diplomatic status under President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, has shrunk back from the regional stage since his successor, Dilma Rousseff, took office in 2011.

With presidential elections and the World Cup launch quickly approaching, Brazilian politicians are busy concentrating on domestic issues, making it less likely to take a strong stand on Venezuela either way, says Joao Castro Neves, a Brazil specialist at the Eurasia Group. "Plus, the ideological convergence [between Maduro and President Rousseff] tends to diminish any mediating role that Brazil could have," Mr. Castro Neves says.

"While most Latin American leaders are currently unwilling to interfere against Maduro’s interests in Venezuela, neither are they likely to do much more than lend rhetorical support," says Michael Henderson, senior Latin American Analyst with Mapplecroft a risk analysis agency. Mr. Henderson says that some South American countries were reticent to join today’s meeting on Venezuela. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Maduro ally, acknowledged this, saying some member nations required a significant amount of persuasion in order to agree to today’s UNASUR talks in Chile.

Jason Marczak, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council's Latin America Center, says third party mediation by a neighboring country may not be the best route to take with Venezuela. However, he suggests that the Roman Catholic Church could play an important role. "With the pope's Latin American credentials, a church mediation may be a way to save face for the government and protesters," Mr. Marczak says.

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