Venezuela's Desperate Times and Maduro's Desperate Measures

By Carl Meacham

On March 1, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced the latest in a series of claims accusing the United States of meddling in Venezuela's affairs: an unspecified number of U.S. citizens, among them an American pilot, arrested in Táchira were, according to Maduro, conducting espionage operations for the U.S. government.

This all comes just one day after his government released four U.S. missionaries arrested earlier in the week.

Over the weekend, Maduro also announced a series of new measures supposedly designed to counter U.S. influence in Venezuela, including visa requirements for U.S. citizens traveling to Venezuela, significantly downsizing the U.S. embassy in Caracas, and banning a number of prominent U.S. officials (some already retired) from entering Venezuela. In recent weeks, Caracas has also accused Vice President Joe Biden of conspiring to overthrow the Maduro administration and alleged that U.S. officials helped to plan an attempted attack on the presidential palace.

All of this bluster and bombast amounts to this: desperate moves from an administration desperate to distract from Venezuela's desperate political and economic straits.

The past two years have been grim (at best) for Venezuela. The country's oil sector, mismanaged under Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez, can no longer support the government's vast social programs - particularly not in the context of last year's rapid drop in oil prices.

Without oil income, Venezuela's economy has ground to a halt. Inflation is over 60 percent, the bolivar is at an all-time low even on the black market, and scarcity has topped 80 percent. Goods as basic as toilet paper and milk are nowhere to be found, and the government is frantically seeking additional sources of loan-based income.

Meanwhile, the political environment is toxic. Since early 2014, protests have persisted across Venezuela as the opposition has fought to preserve its place in the country's politics. Last year saw over 40 casualties - not to mention the hundreds injured and jailed. Just last week, that violence resurged when Venezuelan police shot and killed a 14-year-old boy during peaceful protests in San Cristobal.

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has been incarcerated for over a year on trumped-up charges, and he was recently joined by Caracas opposition-party mayor Antonio Ledezma. All eyes are on prominent opposition politicians Maria Corina Machado, Julio Borges, and Henrique Capriles as potential targets of political backlash from Maduro's administration. Repression of political dissidents only increases as Maduro's approval ratings - now hovering just above 20 percent - continue to plummet.

Meanwhile, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello is facing accusations that he heads an international drug cartel - all based on information from his former head of security, who has since defected to the United States and is working with U.S. federal prosecutors.

All of this is to say that Venezuela - and particularly the government of Nicolás Maduro - is in crisis. Maduro's eagerness to lash out at the United States says little (if anything) about the bilateral relationship - but the worst could be yet to come. Still, it speaks to his sense of panic: panic over his country's economic disaster, panic over his unpopularity, and panic over the faltering of Chavismo in a country so wedded to it.

The recent arrests of Americans in Venezuela, Maduro's anti-U.S. speeches, empty rhetoric, and accusations of espionage, sabotage, and collusion-all of this is no more than an attempt at distraction by a floundering leader desperate for his own preservation.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission from CSIS.

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