On Thursday Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro will be sworn in after his unconstitutional re-election. Much of the world considers his socialist regime a dictatorship – and a disastrous one: Venezuela is suffering the worst economic collapse in the world right now.
But is it also a dangerous one? Lately the U.S. and much of Latin America are calling Venezuela an erratic security threat. It's escalating tensions with its neighbors – and last month welcomed Russian bomber planes into the country.
To understand what's going on with Venezuela, WLRN’s Tim Padgett spoke with Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami international studies professor and an expert on South American security issues.
Excerpts from their conversation:
WLRN: In South Florida we've got the largest Colombian and Venezuelan communities in the U.S. Right now they're wondering if their home countries are trying to assassinate each other's presidents. Just before Christmas, Colombia arrested three Venezuelans for allegedly plotting to kill President Iván Duque. Any evidence the Venezuelan government could be involved?
BAGLEY: There's no direct evidence, but the suspicions are very high and the tensions are very high. There's no love lost between the two countries, and Colombia's increasingly fearful of the mess that is occurring in Venezuela, because they are on the front lines. Clearly the Duque government has great hostility towards Venezuela, so it's plausible at least that there could be some machinations behind the scenes.
And likewise, Venezuela believes the Iván Duque administration is in a plot to assassinate President Maduro.
Yes. And on top of that it is clear that the Trump administration, Washington, has talked to Colombia, in league with Brazil, about perhaps intervening at some point in Venezuela because of the humanitarian crisis.
At the same time, a Venezuelan naval ship stopped an unarmed ExxonMobile ship exploring for oil in waters that belong to Guyana. Maduro says they belong to Venezuela – and a lot of people are worried Venezuela is thinking of invading Guyana over this issue.
Regimes that are in free-fall collapse that are authoritarian, as Maduro's government clearly is, very often rattle sabers and appeal to nationalism, right?, in its most basic form in order to distract the population from other problems. Maduro clearly has ruined Venezuela's oil industry and desperately needs distractions abroad.
On top of all that Venezuela unexpectedly invited in nuclear-capable Russian bomber planes for joint maneuvers. Venezuelan officials said this wasn't meant as a provocation, but the rest of the hemisphere certainly saw it as one. What was Maduro trying to prove?
First of all, that if Washington has any ideas of backing an intervention in Venezuela – and there has certainly been talk, including by President Trump – that then Venezuela has friends too. It has friends in Russia, it has friends in China. We don't know whether there are actually nuclear arms on those aircraft that came in. But whether there were there or not, it's certainly an indication that at any moment Russia could place nuclear weapons in Venezuela at least for a temporary period of time.
NORTH KOREA WITHOUT THE BOMB?
And that also raises the specter of Cuban Missile Crisis redux down the road?
No question about it. Here we are revisiting the early 1960s in Venezuela.
Is Venezuela becoming a sort of South American North Korea without the nuclear bomb?
They're actually making North Korea look pretty good because of the collapse in Venezuela. I mean, there's at least a million percent inflation rate to the currency, the bolívar – it is worth virtually nothing.
But we don't spend as much time looking at Nicolás Maduro. As a leader and as a man, what should we being paying most attention to about him?
First, you have to understand that Maduro rose to his current position by being a lapdog, by being a total loyalist to Hugo Chávez. He had never been a very prominent politician; he had been a bus driver beforehand. He doesn't have the street smarts nor the charisma that Chávez had.
And then finally, I think that he has proven to be exceptionally stubborn, hardheaded, inflexible.
Is that because he lacks all of those political skills you were just talking about?
I think so. He is dogmatic in terms of his personality and he does not have the imagination, the creativity – or by the way the link with the Venezuelan people – that Hugo Chávez had.
The U.S. has levied economic sanctions against Venezuela. But is the international community doing enough to pressure Maduro to restore democracy?
Absolutely not. It's been extremely weak in its reaction. One of the crucial points of leverage is the Lima Group [the 14 hemispheric countries – including Brazil and Mexico – that came together last year to confront the Venezuela crisis]. But it is seriously divided.
Update: Over the weekend the Lima Group issued a statement that it does not recognize Maduro’s re-election and called on Venezuela to hold a new, more legitimate presidential vote. But Mexico – whose new left-wing President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, opposes pressuring Maduro – did not sign it.