Roberta Jacobson is burning up Twitter in English and Spanish this week trying to recover President Obama’s fumble on Venezuela.
She’s worried – and gosh, we can’t imagine why – that left-wing Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is giving his people the wrong impression about Obama’s ill-advised announcement on Monday that Venezuela is a “national security threat” to the U.S.
Jacobson, the Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, wants Venezuelans to remember that Obama was talking about “human rights abusers/corrupt individuals in #Venezuela, not its people or economy.” That he’s just trying get Maduro’s authoritarian government “to change its ways, not to remove that govt.”
The goal of these sanctions is to persuade the government of #Venezuela to change its ways, not to remove that govt. (3/4)
— Roberta Jacobson (@WHAAsstSecty) March 11, 2015
Most of the world knows that. And few people doubt Obama was right to sanction several Venezuelan officials for human rights violations and to bar them from entering the U.S.
But it still wasn’t all that wise to call Venezuela a “national security threat," even if it is a legal requirement for sanctioning human rights violators. Because by doing so Obama essentially FedExed the wilting Maduro a great big bottle of political Viagra.
Maduro’s approval rating at home lies just above 20 percent as Venezuela’s oil-rich economy collapses. His international image is tanking just as badly as he desperately tosses opposition politicians into jail on trumped-up sedition charges.
What Maduro needed most at this moment was a made-in-the-U.S.A. diversion. A pretext for screaming that los yanquis are poised to launch an armada across the Caribbean to invade Venezuela and rape and pillage the socialist revolution.
And, presto, Maduro swiftly declared Obama’s statement “the worst aggression the U.S. has ever committed against us.” Now Venezuela’s National Assembly looks set to hand him “anti-imperialist” decree powers so he can fight the gringos on the beaches and in the streets and in his imagination.
Maduro will likely abuse them, as he’s done before, to tighten the screws on his opponents and take fiscally reckless measures to shore up his government’s popularity in advance of parliamentary elections next fall.
So it goes. Yet, while I question Obama’s overkill on Venezuela, I understand why he resorted to it.
And the explanation shows us that while Obama may consider Maduro his worst hemispheric irritant, he’s apparently learned a lot from the Venezuelan leader about how to play the distraction game.
Obama, it turns out, needs his own diversion right now. Or he will very soon if – and it looks increasingly likely – his administration decides in the coming weeks to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of international terrorism sponsors.
That move is all but necessary for normalizing relations with the communist island. But it won’t sit well with U.S. conservatives, especially the Cuban-American congressional caucus, who will call the terrorism-list concession more proof that Obama is a foreign policy weakling who likes getting sand kicked in his face by the Castro regime.
Which is why Obama needs to flex his own beach brawn – and he’s betting that playing hardball with Venezuela will blunt the Beltway condemnation on Cuba.
“It certainly helps placate the people who will say he’s soft on the Latin American left,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.
And what’s more, Shifter adds, “It demonstrates how geopolitically unimportant Venezuela has suddenly become.”
It seems just a few years ago Obama was playing Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chávez, with kid gloves, thanks to Venezuela’s outsized, oil-fueled influence in Latin America. But now that falling crude prices and Maduro’s policy blunders have reduced the Bolivarian Republic to a barely solvent republic, Venezuela may look diplomatically expendable.
Obama has all but announced that his normalization talks with Havana matter a lot more right now than his imploding relations with Caracas – especially in terms of rebuilding Washington’s bridges with Latin America, which has long criticized the U.S’s policy of isolating Cuba.
And the region appears to be bearing him out. While Venezuela’s neighbors certainly aren’t voicing approval of Obama’s “national security threat” jab, so far they’re not exactly mobilizing en masse to defend Maduro, either. At least not at the angry decibel levels we’re used to hearing.
Even the indignation coming out of Cuba – Maduro's mentor – has been relatively tempered. The Castro regime has of course registered its displeasure on official communist mouthpieces like Granma. But its statements are hardly the rhetorical anti-aircraft missiles it customarily fires whenever it believes the U.S. has violated an underdog’s sovereignty.
“Venezuela Is Sacred and To Be Respected,” was Granma’s Wednesday headline on the matter.
That’s tame stuff compared to the old days. And it might say more about Obama’s decision on Venezuela than all of Roberta Jacobson’s tweets have.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.