It is just 520 miles from where I am writing this at my home on the south-coast of Puerto Rico to Caracas, the chaotic Venezuelan capital. That is less than 1/10 the distance from here to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which is 5,845 miles. Yet the troubling situation on the shores of the distant Black Sea continues to command far more media and political attention than the massive turmoil in nearby Venezuela just across the Caribbean Sea.
As I have reported before, there are a host of reasons the affairs of Latin America generally and Venezuela specifically isn’t making the evening news despite its proximity. Foremost is the fact that a foreign country isn’t overtly muscling into Venezuela the way Russia is taking over Ukraine’s Crimea. If Cuba had openly invaded Venezuela, instead of merely infiltrating the government of leftist President Nicolás Maduro as it did the government of his predecessor the late Hugo Chávez, the United States would be invoking the Monroe Doctrine and mobilizing for war.
The paranoid President Maduro thinks we’re on the verge of invading anyway, or at least that what he tells his followers to keep them focused on the imaginary threat from Uncle Sam instead of on the 56 percent inflation rate and the real world shortages of basic human services including food and healthcare. In the meantime, under his rule bilateral trade with the United States has fallen dramatically, oil exports to the U.S. eroded from $41.9 billion in 2011 to just $30.8 billion in 2013.
For the last month, violent nationwide demonstrations have wracked this lovely nation on the top of South America. Twenty-eight protesters have been killed since the unrest began Feb. 12, following a sexual assault that highlighted a woeful epidemic of violent crime, and the world’s highest murder rate.
Television stations here in Puerto Rico carried at least excerpts of a speech to his nation and to the world this past weekend by President Maduro in which he called on the United States to negotiate not only a peaceful conclusion of Venezuela’s endemic unrest, but a new era in the U.S.-Latin American relations.
"Let the coups d’état end, the military interventions, the threat and the use of force against the people!" Maduro thundered to a large and friendly crowd.
He also wants the grandiosely named Union of South American Nations (Unasur) at the table. (It is a “union” in the same way the United Nations is “united”).
The United States, of course, denies any role in Venezuela’s problems, and places the blame squarely on Maduro’s narrow shoulders; alleging that he is an incompetent bully and human rights abuser more intent on punishing dissent, appropriating private property and on anti-Yankee fear-mongering than in righting his nation’s tattered economy.
Devoid of the charisma or sense of history of Chávez, his predecessor and role model, the humorless and increasingly desperate Maduro seems amateurish. Still, despite a bloody month of rioting, Maduro clings to power by wielding ruthless control over the National Guard and civilian militias called "colectivos."
Now, the skies over Caracas, one of the sweetest cities in the hemisphere are clouded with tear gas, the acrid smoke from burning tires and from the "guarimbas," the makeshift barricades that are constructed and burned by mobs supportive of the president.
I think President Obama should accept President Maduro’s invitation, however insincere. He should take the short flight to Caracas and extol the virtue of renewed robust bi-lateral trade, and a restored special relationship. Importantly, President Obama could also use the summit to highlight the allegations of torture and rape of opposition captives by Maduro’s government and henchmen.
As long as a bare majority of mostly poor Venezuelans support Maduro in fair, internationally supervised elections, we can’t throw the bum out. But the Venezuelan people can, and will, if they know their neighbor next door in El Norte really cares.