By Girish Gupta
When Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1999, U.S. Ambassador to Caracas John Maisto said the U.S. government should watch what Chávez did, not listen to what he said.
Chávez’s rhetoric was indeed fiery. Seven years after coming to power, he stood at a United Nations lectern and called then U.S. President George W. Bush the devil.
“It smells of sulfur still,” said the histrionic Chávez a day after Bush had spoken at the same spot.
Still, oil continued to flow and relations between the two countries were swimming along just fine — despite the rhetoric.
That changed in 2008 when respective ambassadors were expelled and then again in 2010 after a brief resurgence in relations coinciding with the end of Bush’s presidency.
Now, two years after Chávez’s death, relations are hitting a new nadir. Earlier this month Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, expelled more than 80% of U.S. diplomats in Caracas.
After Washington responded by calling Venezuela a “national security threat” and beginning a process of sanctions, Maduro ordered military exercises to counter the U.S.’s perceived threat.
Yet oil continues to flow.
There is good reason to wonder if Maduro … will last his full term.
U.S. sanctions may hurt some top officials, but Venezuelans have much bigger problems at home. Critics of the 52-year-old Maduro, a former union activist and foreign minister, say Venezuela’s recent goading of Washington is aimed at deflecting attention from domestic problems.
Annual inflation is around 70%, the currency on the country’s black market has fallen some 30% this year alone and shortages of basic items are causing supermarket lines often running into the hundreds, sometimes thousands.
Maduro’s popularity is currently in the low twenties. Worryingly for him, “Chavistas” — followers of Chávez — are turning away from his government, although not yet towards a disparate, struggling opposition.
Maduro’s term ends in 2019. But the opposition could hold a referendum as soon as next year to unseat him.
There is good reason to wonder if Maduro, who won election to replace Chávez in 2013, will last his full term.
Girish Gupta has covered Mexico’s drug wars, investigated links and antagonism between Colombia’s paramilitaries and giant coal and gold mining multinationals and followed the trail of diamond smugglers through the Venezuelan, Brazilian and Guyanese Amazon. Has also worked in the Middle East.
Originally published at www.linkedin.com on March 18, 2015.