Venezuela’s economic disintegration has wrought severe shortages. Food, medicine, electricity. And now – ¡cónchale, chamo! – even Polar beer.
But there might be one scarcity above all others keeping President Nicolás Maduro awake and sweaty at night.
It’s a shortage of scapegoats. Especially U.S. scapegoats.
Maduro has tried to deflect attention from his catastrophic incompetence by claiming the Obama Administration is plotting to assassinate him. Or waging an economic war against him. Or – here’s the best one – causing the cancer that led to the 2013 death of his predecessor, mentor and demigod, Hugo Chávez.
None of it sticks. In one recent poll, almost three-fourths of Venezuelans still say they want Maduro out of office as soon as he can arrange exile in Cuba. Even the federal election commission he controls cleared the way this week for a presidential recall referendum.
But some Venezuelans are coming to Maduro’s rescue – and they must be the Venezuelans who can still find Polar beer, because the replacement scapegoats they’re offering el presidente are pretty funny.
For example: Who can Maduro blame for Venezuela’s electricity shortage – especially embarrassing for a country with the world’s largest oil reserves – which has forced him to turn off his nation’s lights and air conditioning for four hours a day?
A new Internet meme offers him a culprit: Godzilla! It shows the slimy monster destroying Venezuela’s power lines under a caption that reads: “Government Finds Out Who’s to Blame For Power Outages.” And in case you don’t believe this, it adds: “The National Guardsmen in charge of protecting power plants took this photo!”
This is what happens when Latin American leaders can no longer foist responsibility for their screw-ups on Washington.
It was certainly a valid instinct in years, decades and centuries past, when yanqui interventionism could indeed be fingered for destructive coups and unfair trade.
But today, when a U.S. president is eating ropa vieja in Havana and dancing tango in Buenos Aires, Latin American leaders can’t seem to find their handy Star-Spangled Scapegoat anywhere in their desk drawers. Instead, from the Río Grande to the Río de la Plata, Washington’s new and less imperialista engagement with Latin America has helped expose the region’s inner Godzillas.
Or as my colleague Ginger Thompson so aptly put it this week in a New York Times op-ed on Mexico – whose leaders insist Donald Trump is the cause of their bad p.r. – we’re reminded that “the deeper damage to the country’s image is self-inflicted” instead of gringo-inflicted.
Thompson points out that Mexico’s diplomatic machinery is working overtime to combat Trump’s anti-Mexican slurs. Those insults are of course reprehensible – but they’re not the real source of Mexico’s current rot.
What ails Mexico most is its chronic official criminality. The kind, according to a new independent investigative panel’s report, that led to the presumed massacre of 43 Mexican college students two years ago, allegedly at the hands of corrupt cops and drug traffickers. And the kind that may have led President Enrique Peña Nieto's government to attempt a cover-up.
But the politicos who really miss their blame-America mojo are, like Maduro, in South America. One by one, populist heads of state who once thrived on battles with the U.S. are shrinking if not disappearing.
Like former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is being investigated for fiscal fraud after her hand-picked successor was trounced in last November’s election.
Or Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has ruled for a decade but just lost a referendum on whether he could run for another term. Or Ecuador’s authoritarian President Rafael Correa, whose once lofty approval rating has plunged to about 30 percent.
And, most glaringly, Dilma Rousseff – president of Brazil, which is buckling under epic corruption and mismanagement – who will likely be impeached next month by the Brazilian Senate.
Granted, Rousseff had reason to be peeved a few years ago when she found out the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on her phone calls and emails. But when Obama later assured her it wouldn’t happen again – as opposed to dismissing her, which was the traditional White House response in such cases – it seemed to disarm her own anti-yanqui missiles.
That’s left her with no one outside Brazil to blame for what she calls the impeachment “coup d’état.” And it's left Brazilians with the realization that their deeper damage is self-inflicted.