We know that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is crying wolf when he claims – over and over and over – that the United States is plotting to carpet bomb his socialist revolution.
And we all know why he’s doing it. What left-wing Latin American leader wouldn’t prefer to scapegoat los yanquis under the current circumstances? Venezuela's oil-rich economy is on the brink of collapse. His citizens are queuing up for hours just to find rice and aspirin. The violent crime they face is South America’s worst. Opposition protests are again hitting the streets.
Maduro has presented little, if any, credible evidence of a Washington-led “war” against him, which the Obama Administration calls “ludicrous.” But that didn't stop him on Saturday from slashing the number of U.S. diplomats who can work in Venezuela – and decreeing that U.S. citizens for the first time ever will now need visas to visit the country.
That last one won’t exactly cause riots in Peoria: Fewer than 50,000 U.S. tourists visited Venezuela last year – compared to the almost 400,000 who traveled next door to Colombia, where a guerrilla war is still on.
But that’s not the point, chama. What matters is the art of distracting Venezuelans from their quotidian chaos – and from Maduro’s panicked moves to muzzle political threats at home. Those include the kangaroo-court arrests of opposition leaders like metropolitan Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was locked up last month for allegedly taking part in The Big Plot.
Still, no matter how obvious this all is, here’s the other sobering point to remember: Maduro can get away with crying wolf because, let’s face it, once upon a time the wolf did come.
In Venezuela’s case that was 2002 – when Maduro’s predecessor and demigod, the late Hugo Chávez, was briefly ousted in a coup that the U.S. backed (or at least gave the very strong appearance of backing).
For Chávez and his revolution it was – and is – the gringo gift that keeps on giving.
Once Chávez was back in the presidential palace, he could play the 2002 card like a Texas Hold’em shark. Whenever he needed political cover, he simply announced he’d unearthed yet another U.S. scheme to remove him.
Take 2008, for example, when a trial began in Miami that involved Chávez’s government and gave the world its first real look at the revolution’s rampant corruption: He cued up an outraged speech "revealing" a Washington plot to assassinate him. He expelled the U.S. ambassador. Distraction accomplished. A few months later Chávez handily won a referendum that let him run for president for life.
Maduro possesses none of Chávez’s charisma or political skills. But he knows that evoking the 2002 outrage still plays well with the Chavista base.
And that’s a reminder that U.S. blunders in Latin America can haunt us for a long, long time. Exhibit No. 1: the trade embargo against Cuba, which has given the communist regime its own scapegoat and helped keep the Castros in power for 56 years and counting.
The question now is how long Maduro can rely on his own anti-U.S. air raid siren to drown out Venezuela’s myriad crises. The most daunting is collapsed oil prices, but that’s hardly the only emergency he’s facing.
For starters, he’s got his own Ferguson to deal with.
Last week, 14-year-old Kluiverth Roa was fatally shot in the head by a Venezuelan cop during student anti-government protests in the Andean city of San Cristóbal. Even Maduro condemned what his own human rights ombudsman called a “vile murder.”
And yet, how shocked can they really be – considering that just weeks before, Maduro’s government greenlighted deadly force by security forces during protests if they feel “threatened”?
Roa’s death, in fact, makes Maduro seem much more yanqui than he’d care to admit.
Maduro recently condemned the U.S. for the alarming number of unarmed Americans killed by police in cities like Ferguson, Mo. And he was hardly out of line to do so: Too many U.S. cops these days assume they have carte blanche. But the world’s got every right now to rebuke Maduro for giving his own enforcers a trigger-happy sense of free rein.
Here’s another important hypocrisy Maduro needs to explain. Chávez’s revolution began 23 years ago with a document calling for a transition to a new government order in Venezuela. So what’s the key “evidence” Maduro used to jail Ledezma? Ledezma signed an opposition document calling for a transition to a new government order in Venezuela.
Ledezma is no democratic icon, either. Still, the conspiracy he’s charged with so far looks fabricated at best. But Maduro will keep crying wolf because it works – that is, until enough Venezuelans decide the guy crying wolf is a wolf himself.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.