What a Difference a Decade Makes

I met Leopoldo Lopez in Caracas in 2002, just a few weeks after the short-lived coup that briefly toppled, but ultimately strengthened Hugo Chavez. Speaking at the speed of light, Lopez exuded energy, intensity, and extreme anxiety about his country's future. He spoke about the economy, oil, politics, and Chavez's socialist plans, albeit not about Cuba's involvement. At the time, the region's big geopolitical conundrum was how the conflict in Colombia would affect the neighborhood. In planning a research trip to each of Colombia's neighbors, a visit to Venezuela, with its huge shared border and, at the time, major commercial ties, I hoped would provide some insight.

But Venezuelans 12 years ago were focused on Venezuela. And like today, conflict in Caracas (and now around the country) drew the attention of Washington and Latin America -- condemnations of the coup came from virtually every capital and the OAS. Playing to type, the United States quickly welcomed the new government, comprised of people whose names few now remember.

But what a difference a decade makes. International politics in Latin America has become both more clear-cut and more complicated. Even if USAID is still mucking around with "democracy promotion" programs, Washington can hardly be seen as having the wherewithal or intelligence networks necessary to orchestrate the protests in Venezuela. This is not your daddy's destabilization campaign a la the 1970s against Salvador Allende, the one that did end in a coup.

Having almost entirely purged the United States from its regional diplomatic institutions, Latin America still has not figured out how to talk about internal dynamics in one another's countries without triggering claims of sovereignty violations. The respect for "diversity" that we heard at the CELAC summit last month may resonate with the rhetoric of the LGBT movement, but the underlying realism is downright Kissingerian. Tepid to nonexistent statements issued from the region's foreign ministries hand the rhetorical moral high ground back to the United States, the country least well positioned to contribute to democratic détente in Venezuela.

When I hear Nicolas Maduro or Raul Castro condemn the protests as "fascist" and describe the events as a slow-motion coup, my allergy to high-volume rhetoric competes with the historian in me, who wants to first carefully examine the allegation. But leaving adjectives and historical references aside, in the immediate term, the greater concern is that both the government and the opposition do not lose control of their base, but of the extremes. This is not the first time that Venezuelans have escalated their internal conflict to what appeared to be a dangerous brink. Nor is this the first time that Washington and Havana sit on opposite sides over Venezuela. But to the extent that either capital has a stake in a non-violent, economically viable and democratic Venezuela, and both do, this may be the moment for the United States' secretary of state John Kerry to call Cuba's foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez. Imagine that conversation.

This article was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is originally available here.

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