Yet another twist in the ever-thickening plot of Venezuela’s ongoing crisis has cast fresh doubt on the country’s ability to put an end to its downward spiral. A formal message from the Vatican has asked that President Nicolas Maduro suspend the start of the Constituent Assembly scheduled for today.
This is not the first time that Pope Francis has tried to establish the Catholic Church as a mediator between the opposing factions in the escalating struggle. His previous efforts have ranged from general pleas for “calm” to more assertive calls for elections as a way out of the conflict. This latest foray into conflict resolution shows a much more robust stance from the Vatican.
The Church’s reaction is just one of many ripples that Sunday’s Constituent Assembly election has sent through the international community, with British technology firm Smartmatic – which supplied the voting platform for the election – alleging that turnout data had been “tampered with”.
Delicate diplomatic balance
Argentina, Brazil Paraguay and Uruguay have invoked the democratic clause of the Ushuaia Protocol to suspend Venezuela from Mercosur; while Washington has imposed sanctions on many of the country’s high-ranked officials. The combined effect of these measures will undoubtedly isolate Venezuela – already something of a pariah state – even further. The question of whether this will force a solution to the crisis is another matter entirely.
On the one hand, Venezuela’s suspension from Mercosur represents a much less serious blow than it would have been just a couple of years ago, and the bloc’s key members, Argentina and Brazil, are largely to blame. With regard to Brazil, the country’s own sway in the region has drastically decreased since a controversial impeachment installed Michel Temer as president.
Preoccupied with its own internal struggles and questionable legitimacy, at present Temer’s administration couldn’t be further from the active regional hegemon Lula’s Brazil had strived to become. As far as Argentina is concerned, Buenos Aires has conducted a sharp turn in its foreign policy under Mauricio Macri, the country’s first democratically-elected conservative president, who took office in late 2015.
Although Macri is a well-known and outspoken adversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian government, his strategy so far could be defined as “enthusiastic neglect” towards the region at large, as Argentina looks elsewhere in its relentless pursuit of foreign capital. In this context, the suspension of Venezuela from Mercosur might very well go down in history as yet another blow to Latin America’s longstanding and frustrated goal of regional integration.
Defiance of Nicolas Maduro
On the other hand, we have, in the words of Maduro himself, “Emperor Donald Trump” and his economic sanctions. While these measures were specifically targeted, their effectiveness is still yet to be determined. However, the level of US involvement inevitably clashes with two determining factors. Firstly, the US will not risk jeopardising the oil imports it gets from Venezuela. Secondly, a more assertive and invasive policy on the part of the US – not outwardly seen in the region since the Obama administration was alleged to have intervened in Honduras in 2009 – could easily turn a divisive internal conflict into a resistance against foreign intervention, especially in a country as susceptible to anti-imperialism as Bolivarian Venezuela.
The ineffectual Cuba embargo stands as an important lesson on aggressive US involvement in the region. Similarly, the Vatican’s own warnings and pleas might fall on deaf ears. Although Rome has considerable soft power in the country, soft power is, by its very nature, a shaky foundation for assertive rhetoric.
Ultimately, regardless of Venezuela’s international standing – which has been steadily deteriorating in recent times, the country’s troubles are essentially domestic in nature. Although the origins of the crisis can be found in oil overdependence, its political aspects have long superseded the economic factors as the central axis around which the conflict now revolves.
Venezuelan society find itself increasingly unable to develop viable ways of reconciling its contradictions; caught between a government strong enough to maintain itself afloat, but without sufficient legitimacy to restore peace, and with an opposition that has thus far failed to present itself as a credible alternative. For the moment, not only does it appear that the Constituent Assembly will fail to deliver the peace President Maduro promised, but also may very well increase the antagonism between factions that, amid escalating violence, seem ever more cynical about a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
How far this conflict could end up going is an issue that deeply concerns the region as a whole, and one that, for the time being, will simply be a matter of intense speculation. Amid so many uncertainties, one thing is clear: if the crisis does escalate much further – more alarmist commentators speak of an incipient civil war – this will take its toll on a region that has come as close as it ever has to achieving continental peace.