Venezuela sends US diplomat 'saboteurs' packing

US hopes that the post-Chávez era might usher in better US-Venezuelan ties were dashed with President Maduro's announcement that he was expelling three 'Yankee' diplomats.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
A view shows the US Embassy building in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Monday he was expelling the top US diplomat in the South American nation and two others, accusing them of meeting with opposition leaders and encouraging 'acts of sabotage' against his country.

Over the past several months, the US government has been accused of a host of offenses by Venezuela’s leadership: Planning a death plot against President Nicolás Maduro, barring government planes from entering US airspace, causing widespread blackouts by interfering with the country’s electric grid, and even playing a role in former President Hugo Chávez’s illness and death. 

And this week, Mr. Maduro said he's had enough. He announced it was time for three “Yankee” diplomats in Venezuela to go home – the second time he’s kicked out US officials this year. He found they had been “dedicated to meeting the far-right and to financing and encouraging acts of sabotage against the electrical system and Venezuela’s economy,” Maduro announced on TV Monday.  

Seven months ago, in the lead-up to the first presidential election in 15 years in which Mr. Chávez was not a candidate, there was hope that Venezuela’s new leadership would work toward warmer relations with the United States. 

“What is different is that [Maduro]’s someone you can talk to and with Chávez that [was] impossible,” Michael Shifter, director of the Inter-American Dialogue, told The Christian Science Monitor in March, noting that Maduro is a staunch leftist and would still walk the party line. “[He’ll be accessible] within the party, to the opposition, and the US,” Mr. Shifter said.

The US announced “its interest in developing a constructive relationship” with Venezuela’s government, according to a statement by President Obama following the announcement of Chávez’s death on March 5.

But today’s move seems to indicate little has changed when it comes to dealing with Venezuela’s “imperialist” neighbor to the north.

"I have the proof here in my hands," Maduro said last night, referring to his allegations of sabotage. "Yankees go home! Get out of Venezuela! Get out of here! I don't care what actions the government of Barack Obama takes."

So, what happened to hopes for renewal in US-Venezuela relations?

To start: a foundering economy, record-high inflation, strict currency controls, shortages of basic goods ranging from toilet paper to sugar, rolling blackouts, and high levels of violence – many problems that were inherited from the previous administration.

Deflecting blame for domestic problems on external forces is a time-honoured tradition” in Venezuela, according to the Financial Times. And Maduro has stepped up the blame game, activating a sabotage hot line (0800-SABATAJE) last month, which the government said received more than 1,000 calls in its first week. The Miami Herald reports that Maduro’s office has mentioned the word “sabotage” in at least 144 communiqués sent out since mid-April.

According to the FT, blaming outside forces is especially big now since Maduro "has made little headway in correcting the economic distortions bequeathed by Hugo Chávez, his charismatic predecessor, a failure that has also left many wondering how much longer the situation can go on."

“The breaking point in Venezuela is very moveable because the country always has oil revenues,” says Luis Vicente León, a pollster and economist at Datanálisis in Caracas. “Whatever a government misspent yesterday, huge cash flows come again tomorrow.”

Still, although the Opec nation receives about $100bn in oil revenues every year, mismanagement and policy incoherence mean its economic problems, such as an annual inflation rate of above 45 per cent, continue to mount – especially when it comes to the exchange rate.

Fixed at 6.3 bolívars to the dollar at the official rate, and trading on the black market at seven times that, the distortion has cut the supply of dollars to Venezuelan importers, thereby exacerbating shortages of basic goods but providing quick winnings for anyone who can access dollars at the overvalued official rate.

Quirky stories on the effects of some of Venezuela’s economic policies have popped up as a result. Used cars in Venezuela actually gain in value, at times selling for more than a new car due to currency controls and insufficient vehicle supplies. And Reuters reported last month that international travel is booked solid months in advance – not so much for the voyages overseas, but because of restrictions that allow those with international plane tickets to exchange up to $3,000 at the government rate.

And hovering in the background of Venezuela’s towering list of economic woes are upcoming local elections, scheduled for Dec. 8. David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernaíz write on the Venezuela blog of the Washington Office on Latin America this week that the elections are the first true test of Maduro’s leadership since his contested presidential victory in April. The elections “will inevitably be interpreted as a referendum not only on ‘Chavismo without Chávez,’ but on the opposition without Chávez.”

Venezuela’s opposition, led by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, is strongest with the middle classes in Venezuela’s major urban centers. Chavismo, in turn, has overwhelming support in Venezuela’s towns and rural areas. This means that the government will likely win a larger number of municipalities. But the opposition theoretically has the chance to win the popular vote. And it is indeed trying to frame the elections as a national plebiscite on the Maduro government….

Thus the December 8, nationwide municipal elections pose a set of opportunities and risks for both sides. The Maduro government’s candidates will surely win most municipalities, but if it loses the national popular vote it will effectively have lost its first “plebiscite.” This would leave the opposition strengthened and in good position to seek a recall referendum on Maduro in two years. Maduro’s standing as Chavez’s successor would be seriously weakened and probably challenged by other leaders within Chavismo.

However, if Chavismo wins most municipalities and the national vote, it could be disastrous for the opposition.

One of the officials Maduro kicked out last night was the US charge d’affaires, who has served as the highest ranking US diplomat in the Andean country since the last US ambassador was expelled in 2010.

"We have seen Maduro's televised announcement but we have not received any official notification of expulsions," a US State Department representative told CNN. "We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of US government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuela government."

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