Friday, June 3, 2016

U.S. nudges the Vatican, other allies to help rescue Venezuela

U.S. nudges the Vatican, other allies to help rescue Venezuela
Tracy Wilkinson

The Obama administration is quietly nudging the Vatican, as well as
European and regional allies, to support negotiations aimed at easing
the devastating economic and political crisis roiling Venezuela.

Any appearance of direct U.S. involvement would inflame tensions between
the country's fiery leftist president, Nicolas Maduro, and the growing
but badly divided opposition seeking his ouster.

Maduro is so distrustful of Washington that even public statements of
concern by U.S. officials risk giving him ammunition to aim at what he
regularly denounces as "U.S. interventionism."

"It is a very fine line that the U.S. government has to walk," said Risa
Grais-Targow, Latin America director of the Eurasia Group, a risk
assessment company. "It has to remain behind the scenes…. Maduro will
always use the United States as a scapegoat and blame it for
his country's problems."

U.S. officials disagree as to whether Venezuela faces a potential
collapse, or could stagger on indefinitely. But by any measure, one of
the world's most oil-rich countries has become one of the poorest and
most dysfunctional over the last few years.

Severe shortages of food, medicine and other basic goods, sky-high
inflation, daily power blackouts, a soaring foreign debt and rampant
violent crime have beset the nation of 30 million people.

Many of the Venezuelans who supported Maduro's predecessor and mentor,
the late strongman Hugo Chavez, are still behind the president, polls show.

But their loyalty is fading amid the growing hardships, helping to fuel
a public campaign to recall Maduro and allow new presidential elections.

A mostly elite opposition made surprise gains in parliamentary elections
in December. It now claims to have gathered tens of thousands of
signatures to demand a recall.

Diplomatic efforts to assist from outside have failed so far.

But they led to an unusually nasty and public spat between Maduro and
the head of the Organization of American States, or OAS, who called for
an emergency meeting that ultimately could lead to the rare move of
suspending Venezuela from the regional body.

In a May 18 letter to Maduro, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro
complained that the Venezuelan leader was acting like a "petty dictator."

In response, Maduro told Almagro to shove his complaints "where the sun
doesn't shine," in a polite and paraphrased translation from Spanish.

Many Latin American leftists see the OAS as a tool of Washington, in
part because successive U.S. governments kept communist-ruled Cuba out
of the organization for decades. (The OAS recently reinstated Cuba's
membership, but it declines to participate.)

Maduro held a rally this week to paint the OAS rebuke as a nefarious
threat from abroad, a common political theme in Venezuela.

Instead, the most promising diplomatic initiative has come from
elsewhere and with discreet U.S. urging.

The former prime minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a
Socialist, has offered to serve as a mediator between Maduro and the
opposition. He has been joined by the former presidents of the Dominican
Republic and Panama, Leonel Fernandez and Martin Torrijos.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry telephoned Zapatero last week to voice
support. Later, the State Department, which has not had a U.S.
ambassador in Caracas in six years, issued a carefully worded statement.

"The Secretary reiterated that the United States supports political
dialogue and peaceful, democratic solutions‎ and reaffirmed that any
U.S. involvement‎ would only be in support of an agreed-upon Venezuelan
solution consistent with constitutional principles," the statement said.

U.S. officials also have sought participation by the Vatican, which has
shown a willingness under Pope Francis to step into thorny political and
diplomatic disputes.

President Obama credited Francis with sponsoring the secret negotiations
that moved Washington and Havana to restore diplomatic relations last
year after half a century of bitter antagonism.

This time, the former papal nuncio in Venezuela, Cardinal Pietro
Parolin, is the secretary of State at the Holy See, in effect the No. 2
official at the Vatican.

As the humanitarian crisis deepens in Venezuela, Roman Catholic bishops
are likely to report back to Rome the urgent need for relief.

Venezuela controls the world's largest reserves of crude and until
recently was the third or fourth top supplier of oil to the United States.

But Venezuela has had difficulties pumping oil and getting it to market.
In addition, plummeting oil prices have depleted Caracas' budget and
forced it to choose between servicing its unwieldy foreign debt and
importing food and other consumer goods.

So far and to their surprise, industry analysts say, the Maduro
government is paying its debt in an effort to avoid default this year.

Maduro is trying to delay any recall effort until next year, experts
say. By then, he will have served enough of his six-year term to avoid
new elections that he could well lose.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials recently warned that Venezuela was on
the verge of collapse, and that Maduro increasingly faced the threat of
being ousted in a palace coup or even a popular uprising.

"You can hear the ice cracking," one of the officials said.

Other administration officials, however, paint the panorama as bleak but
not necessarily doomed. Maduro continues to control most levers of
power, including the judiciary, and has managed to block legislation and
threatened to jail opponents.

Socialist, anti-U.S. governments have ruled Venezuela since Chavez came
to power in 1999, prevailing over a brief 2002 coup that Chavez blamed
on Washington.

Maduro, a former bus driver and Chavez's handpicked successor, was
elected in 2013, a month after the more charismatic Chavez died.

Maduro's political demise has been repeatedly predicted, but just when
is anyone's guess. Diplomats say recent protest demonstrations that
plunged Caracas, the capital, into chaos would probably have to snowball
more massively to finally pull hard-line Chavistas from Maduro's camp.

In the meantime, the diplomats say, daily hardships for ordinary
Venezuelans are likely to only worsen, and channels for negotiation will
remain narrow.

As for the OAS dispute, the body's permanent council issued a
declaration Wednesday supporting the Zapatero efforts and calling for "a
course of action that will assist the search for solutions to the
situation through open and inclusive dialogue."

For now, any move to suspend Venezuela, which several diplomats said was
a long shot anyway, is on hold.

Source: U.S. nudges the Vatican, other allies to help rescue Venezuela -
LA Times -

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