In Brazil, the ascension of President Jair Bolsonaro has seen the government swing dramatically to the right. His hard-line conservatism, penchant for bigotry, loathing of the political left and nostalgia for an era of dictatorship has led to fears of the region’s largest democracy sliding backward. Not all are concerned: The White House, for one, cheered Bolsonaro’s election victory last year, seeing the former military officer as a like-minded nationalist and potential hemispheric partner.
It’s a different story in Venezuela. On Thursday, President Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated for a second term. But the moment only underscored the left-wing demagogue’s deepening political isolation and the scale of the crisis afflicting his country, which is in the grip of a slow-moving humanitarian collapse. The vast majority of Latin American leaders turned their backs on Maduro’s ceremony, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the dubious election in May that granted Maduro his mandate. A litany of South American presidents took to social media to denounce the day’s proceedings.
No importa cuántos trucos intente para perpetuarse en el poder, su investidura como Presidente ahora carece de la autoridad de las urnas y también de credibilidad internacional.— Mauricio Macri (@mauriciomacri) January 10, 2019
La decisión de @OEA_oficial de no reconocer legitimidad del régimen de Nicolás Maduro, es confirmación de denuncias de Colombia y la lucha del Grupo de Lima para restablecer democracia en Venezuela. Es un llamado a comunidad internacional para cercar diplomáticamente la dictadura— Iván Duque (@IvanDuque) January 10, 2019
Hoy anuncié que no enviaremos delegación oficial a Venezuela. Igualmente, que no participaré en el próximo proceso electoral con el fin de garantizar su transparencia. ¡Toda democracia real tiene un gobierno que da ejemplo de principios y valores! pic.twitter.com/WWF6zXmovp— Lenín Moreno (@Lenin) January 10, 2019
Maduro’s first term “saw an implosion unprecedented in modern Latin American history: Though his country was not at war, its economy shrank by 50 percent,” noted an editorial this week in The Washington Post. “What was once the region’s richest society was swept by epidemics of malnutrition, preventable diseases and violent crime. Three million people fled the country. Yet Maduro, having orchestrated a fraudulent reelection, presses on with what the regime describes as a socialist revolution, with tutoring from Cuba and predatory loans from Russia and China.”
The Trump administration this week expanded the list of figures in the regime that are subject to sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department. In a joint statement earlier this week, a dozen Latin American governments and Canada called on Maduro to step aside and cede power to the opposition-controlled National Assembly until fairer elections can be held.
Unbowed, Maduro is set to press ahead with his second term, having withstood myriad predictions of his demise. He was joined in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, by leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the latter having also presided over a bloody crackdown on dissent in his country. As is his wont, Maduro circled the wagons and railed against his foreign enemies, chiefly the boogeymen in Washington.
“Venezuela is at the center of a world war led by the United States imperialism and its satellite countries,” Maduro said in a speech. “There are problems in Venezuela, like in any other country. But we, Venezuelans, have to sort it out, without foreign intervention.”
Maduro also lashed out at Bolsonaro. On Thursday, he branded Brazil’s president as a “fascist.” In the past, he described Bolsonaro’s running mate, former general Hamilton Mourão, as a “crazy coward” with the “face of a madman.” Last month, his foreign minister said Bolsonaro was “the epitome of intolerance, fascism and the surrender to interests that go against Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Those remarks were a reaction to Brazil’s snub of Maduro, who was not invited to Bolsonaro’s inauguration at the beginning of the year. “Maduro has no place at a celebration of democracy,” Brazil’s firebrand foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, tweeted. “All of the world’s countries must stop supporting him and come together to liberate Venezuela.”
It’s unlikely the heated rhetoric will die down anytime soon. Throughout his election campaign, Bolsonaro held up the calamity in Venezuela as what would happen at home should his leftist opponents win. (Never mind that, before it was brought down by a global financial crisis and political scandal, the left-wing Workers' Party lifted some 20 million people out of poverty.)
Bolsonaro will seek to bolster his legitimacy by confronting the increasingly shunned Maduro. “Bolsonaro wants to be seen as the toughest opponent of Chavismo in South America,” said Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, referring to the left-nationalist ideology Maduro inherited from his predecessor, the deceased Hugo Chávez. “He’ll likely rally for support from other countries in the region to take action against Venezuela. He could attempt to impose sanctions on individuals or try to build a coalition to refer Maduro to the International Criminal Court.”
The prospect of military escalation is not as unlikely as it once was. Venezuela is flanked by Brazil and Colombia, two right-wing governments that are losing their patience with the chaos in Caracas. “A pincer movement by the two countries’ armies, with more or less discreet United States backing, is increasingly conceivable, particularly as the region drifts to the right,” wrote Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister, for the New York Times. That would only give greater life to the dark conspiracies often spun by Maduro and his cohort, casting American machinations — and the treachery of U.S. proxies — as the perennial source of the region’s ills.
The specter of a looming clash belies a deeper irony. Maduro and Bolsonaro “share authoritarian similarities,” Castañeda argued, citing Maduro’s clear record of cronyism and repression and the speed with which Bolsonaro has set about implementing his “neo-fascist ideas.”
It’s not just about them. Critics point to a steady assault on democratic institutions and precepts, from a right-wing president in Guatemala stifling anti-corruption efforts against him to Bolivia’s Morales seeking a fourth five-year term in power. While the United States has moved to pressure Maduro — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo huddled with Bolsonaro and Colombian President Iván Duque last week — President Trump is hardly the figure to arrest a worrying political decline.
The White House “will almost certainly not play a role in any of these potential or already burning crises, except maybe by clumsily encouraging Colombia and Brazil to overthrow Maduro by force,” Castañeda added. “But it surely will not lead the hemisphere away from these authoritarian temptations, nor toward greater collective responsibility.”
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