Venezuela’s Maduro Looks to Hardline Chavez Tactics as Protests Spread

Venezuela protest
Anti-government protesters throw gas canisters back at police during a rally in Caracas March 2, 2014. Jorge Silva/Reuters

Venezuela’s street protests have shaken up President Nicolas Maduro enough that he has turned to the Hugo Chavez playbook, pulling from it such tricks as launching paranoid salvos against the Yanks and the “international media” they control.

Street protesters have been erecting roadblocks and barricades, while state security forces, beefed up with Cuban security agents and motorcycle gangs, retaliate with widespread arrests and the use of live ammunition.

But don’t even think about Ukraine or Egypt. This is no Arab Spring, says Vanessa Neumann, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. "I don't think we should expect a regime change at this time," said Neumann, a Venezuela-born government critic.

Nearly three weeks in, at least 500 people had been arrested, 150 injured, and state authorities said 13 had died in protests that erupted as the country's inflation rate rose to above 50 percent, and as basic commodities like cooking oil or toilet paper disappeared from store shelves.

Maduro, who has been said to lack the magnetic charisma of Chavez, is now attempting to match his late mentor's famous fiery street rhetoric - not to mention his habit of inflating the numbers. In late February, he told a staged rally of farmers in Caracas that as many as 50 had been killed in the previous two weeks "as a result of road blocks and barricades."

And, again like Chavez, who died just under a year ago, Maduro is seeking to rally international support to counter real and imagined global pressure on his tactics.

In Geneva, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua Milano, managed to get his Russian colleague, Sergei Lavrov, even as the latter was managing the Ukrainian crisis, to express approval of Maduro's tactics against demonstrators. "We uphold your efforts to maintain stability in your country," Lavrov told Milano.

Days earlier, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncaba, gathered diplomats from the Non-Aligned Movement behind closed doors, railing against enemies of his country and listening intently as allied ambassadors vowed to defend its Bolivarian revolution.

"They were the usual suspects," said a diplomat who attended the session, adding that the most enthusiastic supporters speaking on behalf of the Venezuelan government were from Cuba -- which depends on Venezuelan oil handouts to prop up its own economy -- as well as North Korea, Nicaragua and Belarus. The non-aligned UN voting bloc of 120 countries, a Cold War-era relic, is currently chaired by Iran, whose ambassador presided over the session. Nicolas Maduro Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro greets supporters during a rally with farmers in Caracas February 26, 2014. Tomas Bravo/Reuters

"Moncaba was freaked out," said the NAM diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding that the Venezuelan diplomat "blamed the street protests on the U.S. and on the international media. It was a little bit of a desperate move. He tried to rally world support to his cause."

The buzz among some diplomats who attended the session was that they believed the United States was preparing a Security Council resolution to condemn Venezuela. But U.S. diplomats deny any such initiative, raising the suspicion that the rumor was spread by Venezuela as part of its pushback against international pressure.

Top American diplomats have indeed denounced the government's reaction to the protests, but they haven’t found much support elsewhere. Others who have weighed in on the Venezuelan situation have taken a studiously no-blame approach.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said he was "saddened" by events, calling on Venezuelans to "voice differences and grievances peacefully and in accordance with the law, and to seek common ground."

Pope Francis -- an Argentine and the first prelate born in the Americas, who is an influential voice in mostly Catholic Venezuela -- was equally diplomatic, expressing his hope that "violence and hostility would cease as soon as possible."

Nonetheless, as chaotic Venezuelan street protests lit up world television screens, Maduro seems to have become concerned he would come under international pressure.

"What pressure?" says Neumann of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "China props Maduro up, Russia supports him, the Organization of American States is heavily influenced by Cuba, and the more Washington condemns him, the more he uses it to scapegoat the U.S." Venezuela protests An anti-government protester waves a Venezuelan flag in front of police at a rally in Caracas March 2, 2014. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Washington expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat after Venezuela did the same to three American diplomats who had dared to speak out on the protests.

Earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Venezuelan government "has confronted peaceful protesters with force and in some cases with armed vigilantes claiming to support the government." He added that the government limits freedoms of speech and assembly, which "is not how democracies behave."

Not in Caracas, Maduro retorted, saying that Americans "think we're killing each other,” and accusing his opponents of seeking U.S. military intervention. “What madness! Should that happen, you and I will be out with a gun defending our territory," he said.

Perhaps in response to critical tweets from American stars like Cher and Madonna, Maduro summoned a former soccer idol, Argentina's Diego Maradona, to his corner.

"We're seeing all the lies that the imperialists are saying and inventing," said Maradona, who in recent years has been a vocal supporter of Chavez and Cuba's Castro brothers. "I'm prepared to be a soldier for Venezuela in whatever is required,” he added.

For now, Maradona merely signed a TV contract with the Telesur network, which, like all remaining Venezuelan media, supports the government. He will be the network's commentator during the World Cup championship in Brazil.

While ratcheting up the rhetoric, Maduro did offer to negotiate with protest leaders, who immediately rejected the suggestion, saying it would only benefit the government. Maduro also offered to exchange ambassadors with the U.S. for the first time since relations were severed in 2008.

Officials in President Barack Obama's administration have long sought a thaw with Caracas, and Kerry told NBC that "we'd like to see a change" in relations.

“Regrettably," he added, "President Maduro keeps choosing to blame the United States for things we're not doing or for things that they're unhappy about in their own economy and their own society."

Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni