Decision Time on Venezuela

MEXICO CITY – For the last 15 years, Venezuela has been mired in crisis, characterized by wasteful government spending, rampant corruption, growing authoritarianism, relentless human-rights violations, and now economic collapse. But, beyond the occasional sharp word from the late President Hugo Chávez, the periodic expropriation of a foreign company without adequate compensation, and some minor meddling in the elections of neighboring countries, the crisis barely registered abroad. This is no longer the case.

Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama officially classified Venezuela as an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and ordered sanctions against seven officials, thereby stoking bilateral tensions. But, while the crisis in Venezuela undoubtedly has far-reaching implications, the precise motivation behind Obama’s decision remains unclear.

One possible explanation stems from the enduring passivity of Venezuela’s regional neighbors toward its plight. Countries like Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia have remained largely silent in the face of recurring abuses by Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, including the imprisonment of opposition leaders, repression of public protests, and media censorship. Obama may be trying to force these countries to choose sides: either support Venezuela explicitly or support the US in opposing its leaders’ policies.

More important, Obama could be trying to drive a wedge between Venezuela and Cuba at a time when the Cuban leadership is keenly interested in improving its relationship with the US. As it stands, Cuba will sink without Venezuela – unless, of course, it finds another lifeline. The US – which in placing itself in direct opposition to Venezuela has also highlighted the country’s fragility – may be an increasingly appealing option. And, indeed, many experts anticipate the eventual normalization of Cuba-US relations, despite short-term political obstacles.