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Obama makes Maduro's 'insolent Yankees' line harder to sell

Posted on 12/18/2014, 1:58 PM

Bloomberg News
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Nicolas Maduro's favorite tool to rally popular support has been a blunt one: Yanqui-bashing. That may lose its clout now that President Barack Obama has moved to restore diplomatic ties with Maduro's principal ally, Cuba.

Like his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro has whipped up support by alleging the United States is conspiring against Latin American sovereignty, and his Socialist government in particular, citing the embargo on Cuba as the primary example of Washington's bullying tactics toward the region. With that embargo, which he calls a "blockade," weakening, Maduro may find his talking points sounding antiquated.

"Maduro's anti-U.S. rhetoric is being undercut by the Cuban government," said Gregory Weeks, head of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina. "One of the biggest repercussions is that Maduro's foreign policy is based on exclusion of the U.S. and now its biggest ally is moving toward the U.S."

Maduro has accused the U.S. of multiple assassination attempts, sabotaging Venezuela's electrical grid and inciting an "economic war" as the country struggles with one of the world's highest inflation rates and its bonds trade at default levels. When Congress approved legislation this month to freeze assets and deny visas for Venezuelan officials accused of repressing anti-government protests, he called them "insolent Yankees" and told them where they "can shove their visas."

Two days after Maduro rallied his red-shirted supporters in central Caracas against the legislation, Venezuela state television showed images of celebrations in old Havana as President Raul Castro announced his agreement with Obama to swap prisoners and begin establishing diplomatic relations.

"We must learn the art of living, in a civilized way, with our differences," Castro, 83, said.

Venezuela's government welcomed Wednesday's accord in a statement sent by the Foreign Ministry that also recognized "the gesture of courage" by Obama following the "failure of the criminal economic blockade." Maduro earlier this year designated a nominee to serve as ambassador in Washington after the two countries expelled their respective envoys in 2010.

Maduro's government supplies Cuba with almost 100,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for the service of Cuban doctors, athletic trainers and military advisers. Yet, as oil prices plunge and Venezuela's economy contracts, Cuba has started to look beyond Caracas as it tries to revitalize its own beleaguered economy.

That policy shift could further damage Maduro's credibility at a time when he's already suffering at the polls.

In November, Maduro's approval rating fell to 24.5 percent, according a Datanalisis poll cited by Bank of America in a note to clients. The survey of 1,294 people was conducted between Nov. 4 and 20 and had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points.

The U.S.-Cuba accord "could strengthen the moderate factions of the Chavista movement, who may now say that we need to emulate what Cuba has just done and sit down and negotiate with the U.S.," said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College. "They realize that they don't need to have this hostile front with the U.S."

It would be a difficult shift for Maduro to make in a country where policy has been defined by its anti-U.S. stance. In 2004, Chavez and then-Cuban President Fidel Castro established the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or Alba, a trade block to rival the Free Trade Area of the Americas promoted by the U.S. The block later expanded to include Bolivia, Ecuador and a number of Caribbean nations.

It may be easier for Maduro to carry on as if nothing has happened.

"He will continue telling the world they are facing imperialism in its worst form, but I don't think many people will find it credible," Corrales said.

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