There are plenty of reasons to worry about Venezuela. A country with the world’s largest oil reserves now also manages to beat the world in inflation, violent crime and shortages of essential goods. The government’s response consists mostly of arrests of opposition activists, expulsions of U.S. diplomats, and wild propaganda about the supposed threat of a fascist coup or U.S. invasion.
The most discouraging aspect of Venezuela’s agony, however, is its isolation. While European and American diplomats have flooded into Ukraine and President Obama has spent hours on the phone with Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s crisis has been largely ignored by the outside world. No envoys visited Caracas in the past several weeks, even as street battles between government and opposition forces raged. The only would-be broker who has even talked about flying in is 89-year-old Jimmy Carter, who said he might add it to his schedule in April.
The neglect is not because the country of some 26 million is insignificant. In addition to being the fourth-largest supplier of U.S. oil, Venezuela props up the economy of Cuba and borders the Caribbean as well as Colombia. It is already a major transit point for drug trafficking. Its collapse into chaos could destabilize an entire region in the United States’ back yard.
There is a clear role for outsiders to play. Venezuela is utterly polarized between followers of Hugo Chávez and a mass opposition that, driven by students, has begun barricading the streets of Caracas and other cities. The two sides are no more able than are Ukraine’s combatants to strike an accord on their own.
Yet some kind of pact is desperately needed. Unless drastic measures are taken to stabilize its economy, Venezuela could soon be unable to pay for its food, most of which is imported. The next elections are in late 2015, so the ballot box will not provide a means of settling the conflict.
Twenty years ago, an ad hoc group of presidents or foreign ministers of nearby countries could have been expected to launch a mediation effort, much as the European Union did in Ukraine. A dozen years ago, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) spent months painstakingly negotiating a pact between the Chávez government and its opponents, though the regime subsequently failed to respect it.
That no such effort is underway now speaks volumes about how Latin America changed in the Chávez era. The United States has lost almost all leverage. Made into a propaganda whipping boy by the regime, it has mostly responded by backing away.
Other neighbors of Venezuela fall into two camps. Countries such as Colombia, Mexico and Peru, which opposed “Chavismo,” keep their distance, leery of picking a fight with a regime known for its combativeness.
More sympathetic governments, led by Brazil, cite high principle in refusing to intervene: “Brazil does not speak about the internal situation of any country,” President Dilma Rousseff declared recently. Of course, that is not true. When the left-wing president of Honduras was ousted by its supreme court in 2009, Brazil led the charge to have Honduras expelled from the OAS. When Paraguay’s parliament impeached its populist president in 2012, Rousseff went on a diplomatic rampage, forcing Paraguay out of the Mercosur trade bloc. The real reason Brazil won’t act in Venezuela is ideological. “For Brazil it’s very important that Venezuela always be looked at from the point of view of advances . . . in education and health for the people,” Rousseff said. In other words, intervention is called for only when it benefits the left.
That view is shared by the secretary general of the OAS, Chilean socialist José Miguel Insulza. Five years ago Insulza personally boarded a Venezuelan plane carrying ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in a foolhardy (and failed) attempt to reinstall him. Now he proudly says, in an op-ed in the Spanish newspaper El País, that “no authority — not a government, nor an international organization — has considered intervening in Venezuela.”
Panama, the only country willing to openly challenge the Chavistas, called last week for a special OAS ministerial meeting to consider the situation. But Venezuela’s ambassador managed to have the vote on the initiative postponed, and with Brazil opposed it’s not likely to go forward.
So will Venezuela be left to unravel on its own? U.S. officials who believe outside mediation is essential are hoping that the first Latin American pope will step up. Last week Pope Francis delivered an unusually long and heartfelt appeal for “sincere dialogue” in Venezuela at the Vatican . Were mediation by the Vatican or the Venezuelan church proposed, both sides might find it hard to reject.
In short, Venezuelans who hope the free fall of their country will be broken better start praying.