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Venezuelan Autocrat Maduro Attempts a Public Relations Coup


Nicolas Maduro. Photographer: Wil Riera/Bloomberg

  • He releases prisoners and makes sallies at reconciliation
  • Few expect a flowering of democracy in the ravaged land

After winning re-election in a vote derided as a sham, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is embarking on a more difficult task: persuading everyone who labeled him a ruthless autocrat that he’s allowing enough freedom to avoid more punishment or international retribution.

Since his May 20 victory, Maduro has called for adjusting policies that have scared off foreign investors and made Venezuela’s oil industry crumble. He’s met with members of the opposition, bankers, diplomats and even a U.S. senator. Seeking to “turn the page on political violence,” he’s released dozens of jailed activists, politicians, gang members and most notably Joshua Holt, a Utah man held on questionable gun charges for nearly two years without trial.

Venezuelans across the political spectrum have criticized the hand-picked successor of late President Hugo Chavez for bringing hunger and hyperinflation upon what was once a prosperous OPEC nation. His socialist regime has been sanctioned and isolated internationally, accused of trampling rights and pushing what was once one of Latin American’s most vibrant democracies toward one-man rule. Now, with domestic foes silenced, exiled or imprisoned, Maduro, 55, is attempting a public relations coup.

Feeling Heat

“There has to be a level of damage control” with international criticism quickly escalating, said Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a Venezuelan analyst who teaches at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “We’re seeing a rare confluence of factors in which Venezuela’s primary considerations, despite the rhetoric, are external not internal.”

The U.S. is considering a ban that could choke off Venezuela’s oil lifeline after Maduro defied calls to halt an election in which the opposition’s most popular candidates and largest parties were barred from the ballot. The European Union has promised additional sanctions, while the 35-member Organization of American States issued a report charging Venezuela with crimes against humanity the organizations says include torture, rape and more than 8,000 extrajudicial executions.

Against the Wall

Other overtures to the international community have occurred when the socialists have faced domestic strife and criticism abroad. In 2014, regional leaders and the Vatican mediated a televised meeting between Venezuela’s warring political factions after months of bloody protests. Delegations met repeatedly in the Dominican Republic in 2016 as part of a U.S. State Department-backed dialogue, which broke down after the government blocked a recall referendum. Talks in Santo Domingo resumed in 2017, but ended this year after the government accelerated the presidential election.

As pressure has mounted in recent weeks, Maduro has held meetings at the Miraflores presidential palace. Invitees who include political rivals, religious leaders and U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee have made a central demand: free political prisoners.

On Wednesday, the government freed 43 people, bringing the total over 100 prisoners that received conditional freedom since last month’s release of Holt, a 26-year-old former Mormon missionary arrested in 2016. Those released include jailed bankers, student protesters, two opposition congressmen and a former mayor. Maduro stopped short of freeing Leopoldo Lopez, an activist under house arrest who is Venezuela’s most high-profile political prisoner.

State Control

Rights groups say the overwhelming majority of those released lack full freedom and about 300 political prisoners remain behind bars. Alfredo Romero, director of the legal group Foro Penal, criticized the acts as little more than a “revolving door,” saying those freed could be required to return to prison and that the government continues to jail opponents.

Still, many believe the measures are ultimately aimed at easing tensions with Washington, rather than domestic opponents. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah was personally involved in the Holt case, agreeing in a phone conversation with Maduro to bring his message stateside.

“I told him that as a man of my word, I would be able to speak on his behalf to the American public and the American leadership,” Hatch wrote in Time magazine.

Separate Ways

Beyond restricting the cash-strapped government’s access to U.S. financial system and imposing sanctions on dozens of top-ranking officials — including Maduro himself — the U.S. is also lobbying Venezuela’s allies to boot the South American nation from the OAS. Last week, the regional group approved a resolution that could eventually suspend Venezuela after major recipients of the nation’s aid including El Salvador and Nicaragua abstained.

Even though Venezuela was already estranged from the Washington-based organization, Gregory Weeks, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says the vote further demonstrates Maduro’s isolation.

“In Latin America, fewer and fewer voices are willing to support him,” Weeks said. As the socialist regime’s reputation becomes increasingly toxic and the economy continues to implode, “it can get to the point they are unable to even buy votes.”

As the production of oil, Venezuela’s only significant export, falls to multi-decade lows, the government has not only struggled to maintain support abroad but also feed its citizens at home. Output that averaged 2.9 million barrels a day in 2013, when Maduro was first elected, dropped to about 1.5 million in May, according to data Venezuela reported to OPEC.

Facing such a dramatic drop, Maduro has promised to launch an “economic revolution” and called for a national reconciliation. Few expect him to reverse the slide, but Christopher Sabatini, a professor of international policy at Columbia University in New York, said his latest bid to make nice may slow it.

“Hope springs eternal when it comes to dialogue with the Venezuelan government,” Sabatini said. “The government tactic again and again has been delay, delay, delay to try to buy time, in particular hoping that there is some sort of economic breathing room.”

— With assistance by Fabiola Zerpa, Ezra Fieser, Jose Enrique Arrioja, and Lucia Kassai

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