US and Venezuela Play Chess

David Smilde

There are many stories going into the Summit of the Americas today and tomorrow (for example this and these). But one of the most interesting is the jostling for position between the US and Venezuela.

A week ago the story was this. What was supposed to be a triumphant Summit for the Obama Administration showcasing normalization with Cuba, the executive order on immigration, and reforms of the “war on drugs,” was going to be overshadowed by regional dismay at Obama’s executive order implementing targeted sanctions which called Venezuela an “extraordinary and unusual national security threat.”

For the Maduro government the Summit provided the ultimate opportunity to portray Venezuela’s problems as the result of US interference, demonstrate its regional support, and portray Maduro as an important regional actor.

But of course there were risks for Venezuela too. Maduro could overplay his hand. His efforts to focus the summit on Venezuela and the US could fall flat with regional allies preferring to focus on other issues. Cuba’s obvious interest in continuing to negotiate with the US, Venezuela’s slowly deteriorating relationship with Uruguay, Dilma’s own political problems, and an overall unfavorable economic context in the region made this not unlikely.

In the midst of this strategic context, both countries have made significant moves in the past couple of days. A Whitehouse aide and Obama himself both publicly stated that the US does not consider Venezuela a national security threat. The Administration also sent a high level diplomat to Caracas to talk to Venezuela’s foreign minister and Maduro himself. At the same time Obama met yesterday with CARICOM, the association of Caribbean countries to speak specifically about energy issues.

Why would the US do this?

Clarifying (or retracting, depending on you point of view) that Venezuela is not actually a national security threat clearly dampens the regional dismay at this executive order, as it has within Venezuela, and that will help the US keep the Summit focused on its areas of progress.  And pushing forward initiatives with the small but numerous Caribbean countries has the same strategic value for the US that it did for Hugo Chavez. They are easily swayed and have a lot votes for any resolution in the Summit or OAS in the future.

Of course this diplomatic visit resulted from an invitation extended by the Maduro administration. Shannon met with Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, members of the opposition and Maduro himself.

Last night Maduro held a triumphant rally in which he announced that: they had obtained the ten million signatures they sought asking Obama to derogate the executive order (audited by the CNE in record time), and that Obama had retracted. The victory, he said, was the people’s, the people who signed the petition. He said that this could be the beginning of a new era of relations with the US. However, this would only happen if Obama were to roll back the executive order, and explain why he decided to sign it in the first place. If he didn’t, no deal.

Why would Maduro undermine the strongest card he has in his hand, i.e. tensions with the US?

Of course Venezuela’s foreign policy advisors also likely perceived their government ran a risk of not receiving the support they had hoped for. Statements from the US that Venezuela is not a national security threat and a visit from a top diplomat provide clear victories for the Maduro government to take the Summit and they will be applauded. And Maduro can keep the pressure on by continuing to demand the derogation of the executive order. In effect, the Maduro government seems to have hedged its bets and cashed in some of its chips before the Summit.

Overall the sanctions executive order episode has been a win for the Maduro government over the past month, as it has allowed Maduro to make the Venezuela/US relationship the focus of government and media attention, given him a foreign policy victory, and thereby distracted attention from demoralizing economic problems and significant human rights issues within Venezuela.

But the past couple of days have worked in favor of the Obama Administration. Spending some political capital in the days leading up to the Summit will likely allow them to get back on message during the Summit.