How to Become a Pariah State

As the government escalates repression ahead of September 1st's protests, the hemispheric consensus that Maduro has gone too far is hardening.

Three weeks ago, when the opposition’s MUD umbrella group announced a big street protest for Thursday, September 1st — three days from now — a lot of opposition supporters in Venezuela rolled their eyes. “Why on earth wait almost a month!?” people asked. “We need to do something now.”

Over the last few weeks, the point has become increasingly clear. Focusing regime opponents’ energy on a single date, and creating enough time to organize around it has become its own form of strategy. It has sent the regime into a new paroxysm of repression, just when it’s least able to afford it, and has ended up becoming a key part of its strategy to isolate the regime internationally.

The broad and sickening crackdown on Voluntad Popular leaders —from the rejailing of Daniel Ceballos and the raids on Lester Toledo and mayor Delson Guarate’s homes to the bizarre transfer of Pancho Márquez and Gabo San Miguel— shows a government girding up for confrontation on September 1st. But this renewed repressive energy comes just at the time when its reserves of international good will are running on empty.

The region’s willingness to treat Venezuela like a normal country is at an end. The place where that’s most visible now is Mercosur, where three out of Venezuela’s four partners — including the two biggest economies in South America — have balked at the prospect of seeing Venezuela take over the organization’s rotating presidency.

Venezuela’s preferred tactic for fighting this diplomatic fire involves the use of a jerrycan full of gasoline.

The fight over the Mercosur presidency is, of course, about much more than this largely ceremonial role: it’s really a fight over where the line is in terms of “state normalcy” and whether Venezuela has now definitely crossed it. The controversy at the OAS about the invocation of the Democratic Charter is, in effect, the same fight: the region looking at itself in the mirror, seeing the bizarre turn events have taken in one corner of it and asking itself where exactly the limits are.

Venezuela’s preferred tactic for fighting this diplomatic fire involves the use of a jerrycan full of gasoline. In Mercosur, a marginally skilled diplomat would’ve been able to smooth over the crisis. Instead, Venezuela turned up with Delcy Rodríguez, whose idea of diplomacy involves rapid-fire insults aimed at anyone who opposes her, together with a bizarre, Carmonian self-declaration that the Venezuelan presidency of the organization had already begun that only further antagonized the countries Venezuela aspires to lead. Any remaining doubts Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay might have had about the character of Venezuelan diplomacy were definitively put to rest by Delcy’s outburst, which ensured only that her diplomats won’t even be in the room in the future as the issue is discussed.

In fact, it’s hard to shake the sense that Delcy and her brother, Downtown Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodríguez, positively relish the idea of Venezuela as a regional Pariah State. His bluster, together with Diosdado Cabello, in promising to purge thousands of director and sub-director level civil servants for signing the recall petition have harderned international perceptions of Venezuelan irredentism: a state run by lunatics without the first notion of hemispheric norms about democratic fair play.

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro thoughtfully laid down the prep work for this situation a couple of months ago, and so he’s now able to meet the latest regime escalation with a credible threat of outright exclusion from the Inter-American System.

As the government responds to calls for street protests with Cuban-style repression, Almagro’s stance looks simply prescient.

His tireless lobbying and, at this point, outright advocacy in favor of a robust hemispheric response to the collapse of Venezuela’s democratic institutionality has looked rash at times this year, with even some broadly sympathetic observers fretting that he was playing posición adelantada. 

Not at all. Almagro was leading from the front: exploring for the region’s diplomats the terrain they’d find themselves occupying soon enough. As the government responds to calls for street protests with Cuban-style repression, Almagro’s stance looks simply prescient, his early invocation of the democratic charter prepositioned the instruments that would be needed in the months to come.

And so the extremist faction of the Venezuelan regime — the Rodríguez Sibs, Diosdado and the presidential couple at its head — finds itself in an extremely precarious position: at the head of a varied movement including many who are far less comfortable than they are with international pariah status, widely reviled in public opinion, with no money amid the worst economic crisis the country has ever seen, relying on cops and troops they’re not able to feed reliably to sustain themselves in power.

It astonishes me that so many in the opposition continue to perceive the regime’s position as strong, not to say virtually unassailable. Personally, I don’t see the regime as unassailable. At all. I see a regime running out of options fast, and on all fronts, in parallel. It’s a view that, I know, will attract derision from those who style themselves hardboiled, but who’ve in fact learned nothing these last 17 years except for helplessness.