On the margins of a multilateral summit in Guatemala last week, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jose Jaua, marking the Obama administration's latest attempt to reset relations with the South American nation. What's worrisome is that Secretary Kerry's enthusiasm to find, in his words, a "new way forward" with Venezuela could end up legitimizing Chavez-successor Nicolas Maduro's quest for power and undermining the country's democratic opposition and state institutions.
Since the death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez in March, Maduro's actions have more resembled those of a Cuban strongman than a democratically-elected official. Indeed, he has taken drastic moves to preserve his power and discredit his critics in recent months.
First, the Maduro regime is refusing to allow a full audit of the fraudulent April 13th presidential elections, as opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles had requested. As the Associated Press notes a full audit "would have included not just comparing votes electronically registered by machines with the paper ballot receipts they emitted, but also comparing those with the poll station registries that contain voter signatures and with digitally recorded fingerprints." However, because Chavez-era appointees loyal to the current government dominate Venezuela's National Election Council and Supreme Court – the two government institutions able to challenge election results – it is unlikely either will accept the opposition's demands for a full election recount.
Second, Maduro's government is taking steps to dominate radio and television coverage of the regime. Last month, Globovision, one of Venezuela's last remaining independent news channels, was sold to a group of investors with close ties to Maduro. Under Chavez, the independent broadcasting station faced years of pressure as government authorities frequently threatened to arrest the group's owners and journalists. To no one's surprise, the company's new ownership has banned live video coverage of opposition leader Henrique Capriles and many of the station's prominent journalists have been fired or have resigned.
Third, the regime and its allies are using fear and intimidation to silence the opposition. On April 30th, pro-Maduro lawmakers physically attacked opposition legislators on the floor of Venezuela's National Assembly. Days prior, the regime arrested a former military general who was critical of Cuba's growing influence on Venezuela's armed forces. More recently, Maduro even called for the creation of "Bolivarian Militias of Workers" to "defend the sovereignty of the homeland."
In light of all this, it remains unclear why the Obama administration seeks, in Secretary Kerry's words, "an ongoing, continuing dialogue at a high level between the State Department and the [Venezuelan] Foreign Ministry" – let alone believe that such engagement will lead to any substantive change in Maduro's behavior. To be sure, Caracas's recent release of jailed American filmmaker Timothy Tracy is welcome and long overdue. However, it is clear that the bogus charges of espionage against Tracy were used as leverage in talks with the United States, a shameful move reminiscent of Fidel Castro's playbook.
While Secretary Kerry said that his meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart included discussion of human rights and democracy issues, the Obama administration's overall track record in the region gives reason for concern. President Obama failed to mention Venezuela or Chavez's abuse of power during his weeklong trip to the region in 2011. And while Obama refused at first to acknowledge the April election results, the State Department has since sent very different signals. Indeed, Secretary Kerry declined even to mention Venezuela directly during his near 30-minute address to the plenary session of the Organization of American States in Guatemala last week.
For Venezuela's opposition, the Obama administration's eagerness to revive relations with Maduro is a punch to the gut. Pro-Maduro legislators in the National Assembly have banned opposition lawmakers from committee hearings and speaking on the assembly floor. Other outspoken critics of the regime face criminal charges, and government officials repeatedly vilify and slander Capriles. What's worse, if the United States grants or is perceived to grant legitimacy to the Maduro government, that could give further cover to the regime as it systematically undermines Venezuela's remaining institutions.
The Obama administration's overtures to Maduro's government come as the region is increasingly skeptical of the Chavez successor's reign. Last month, Capriles met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Bogota. Chile's Senate unanimously passed a resolution urging a total audit of all polling stations. And in recent weeks, opposition lawmakers led by María Corina Machado, a representative from the National Assembly of Venezuela, have held meetings in capitals around the region to educate foreign leaders about Maduro's illegitimate hold on power.
Rather than accept Maduro's strongman tactics, the Obama administration should take a firm stand and make clear to Caracas that any steps to undermine the country's constitution or threaten the opposition will be detrimental to bilateral ties with the United States. The fact is that Washington holds all the cards. Venezuela's economy is in a free-fall, Maduro's popularity is plummeting, and various public scandals – especially those related to institutional corruption – could further erode public confidence in the current government.
By resetting relations with the Maduro government now, the United States risks legitimizing the Chavez protégé's ill-gotten hold on power and undercutting the Venezuelan democratic opposition efforts to sustain and expand its popular support. It's time the Obama administration rethink this hasty reset with Maduro.
Patrick Christy is a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.