Following the April 14 election in South America, Washington has yet to recognize Nicolas Maduro as the new Venezuelan president. The opposition candidate, Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, his supporters and the governments of the United States and Spain claim that a full manual recount is necessary because of the narrow electoral margin between the two candidates.
Maduro, the heir of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, obtained 50.07 percent of the vote, compared to Capriles’s 49.01 percent—a difference of about 235,000 votes. After intense pressure and deadly protests, Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) agreed to a full audit of the votes. However, it seems more than likely that Maduro will remain president. Given this situation, should Washington recognize Maduro?
Obama and Maduro: Off to a rocky start
It is no surprise that the U.S. government would have preferred a Capriles victory, given Washington’s rocky and tense relationship with Chavez. The late president’s popularity among the Venezuelan masses meant that he was re-elected to power three times, which prolonged his diplomatic clashes with Washington for more than a decade.
Hence, the Obama administration hoped that, upon Chavez’s death, the Washington-Caracas relationship would improve to pre-Chavez levels prior to 1998. In March, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere,Roberta Jacobson, told the Spanish daily El Paisthat the United States could work with whichever candidate won the April presidential election. Nevertheless, diplomatic pleasantries aside, it is safe to assume that the United States would have preferred a Capriles victory.
While the opposition candidate never specifically said that he would improve relations with Washington, it was clear that, if he had been elected, he would have revisited Caracas’s relations with countries such as Cuba, a close ally of Chavez. Such positions made Capriles a more likeable candidate for Washington rather thanMaduro, who promised to continue Chavez’s social programs and foreign policy directives.
The Timothy Tracy affair
Relations between Washington and Caracas have been further complicated by the April 24 arrest ofU.S. citizen Timothy Tracyby the Venezuelan government. Caracas has accused Tracy of working for the CIA and State Department and fomenting protests against Maduro. During President Obama’s May 3-5 trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, he declared that these allegations were “ridiculous.”
With that said, it should be noted that this is not the first time that the United States has been accused of interfering in Venezuelan politics, as Washington has been suspected of mastermindingthe April 2002 proteststhat temporarily overthrew Chavez. In other words, Maduro has some valid reasons to believe that the United States is trying to get rid of him, since it attempted to do so with his mentor and predecessor.
Nevertheless, the Venezuelan government has not released to the public any evidence to support its claim that Tracy was actively involved in anti-Maduro protests. Bank accounts showing wire transfers under Tracy’s name or videos of him meeting with anti-Maduro leaders would be credible evidence, but so far nothing has been made public.
Certainly, the United States has a history of covert operations against anti-Washington governments (and it most likely happened in 2002 in Venezuela as well as in Guatemala in 1954); But so far, no sound proof has been put forward to support Maduro’s claim regarding Tracy.
Interestingly, the arrest of a U.S. citizen in Venezuela, who is accused of espionage, has not yet spurred the wrath of the U.S. government. It may just be that Washington’s main priorities right now are directed outside the hemisphere, such as the Benghazi hearings or the Boston bombings. Nevertheless, the Tracy affair will be a problem for future Caracas-Washington relations.
Moving forward to where?
With every day that passes, it becomes more awkward that Washington has not recognized Maduro as Venezuela’s new president. Incidentally, the Venezuelan leader recently embarked on a mini-South American tour, in which he visited friendly governments inArgentina,BrazilandUruguay.
Unsurprisingly, he did not go to Colombia or even to Peru, where the governments seem ambivalent on how to deal with the crisis in Caracas. There have also beenverbal clashesin recent days between Lima and Maduro.
The White House could recognize Maduro, which would further isolate the Venezuelan opposition at the international level. However, by doing so, the Obama administration would likely be critiqued by his domestic opponents (although he would likely be praised by Maduro’s allies).
Another option is to simply continue not recognizing Maduro until the audit of votes is finished, but that would just worsen relations between the two governments. Moreover, considering that it is extremely unlikely that the audit will overturn Maduro’s victory, Washington is just delaying the inevitable.
As with everything concerning international relations, diplomatic tensions affect other binational issues. For example, it remains to be seen if worsening Washington-Caracas relations will impact the Venezuelan Liberty Act. This bill, proposed byCuban-American Representative Joe Garcia(D-Miami), aims to “grant permanent residence to tens of thousands of undocumented Venezuelans living in the United States.”
Venezuela’s current tense internal situation is not exactly a priority for Washington, so for the immediate future, the United States may not make a move regarding its recognition of Maduro. Nevertheless, if U.S. citizen Timothy Tracy continues to be imprisoned, matters may worsen, especially as it would give further fuel to Obama’s critics, who will accuse the president of being soft with Venezuela.
However, unlike Syria and the use of chemical weapons, neither the White House nor the State Department have mentioned any “red lines” that the Venezuelan government should not cross, whether it is regarding the recount, violence against opposition members or Timothy Tracy.