Two weeks after the death of President Hugo Chavez from cancer, Venezuela’s interim chief and Chavista presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro is increasingly resorting to wild, paranoid, anti-American outbursts in an effort to convince Venezuelans he has the machismo needed to fill El Commandante’s boots.
Following initial claims that the U.S. or others had killed Chavez, Maduro followed up on March 13 by saying he intends to form a scientific commission to review the facts of the 58-year-old leader’s death. “We have the intuition that our commander Chavez was poisoned by dark forces that wanted him out of the way,” Maduro told an audience on March 12. Such a commission, however, will have to collect its evidence from a corpse that was inadequately preserved and may be too decomposed for the embalming Maduro had initially promised.
The war of words between Maduro and opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles also continues to heat up. Maduro and company want to undercut Capriles by making Venezuelans believe that Capriles enjoys official backing from the U.S. Such attacks will only worsen in advance of the April 14 presidential elections.
On March 17, Maduro went further, saying that the U.S. is now preparing a desperate plot to kill Capriles. “I call on President Obama—Roger Noriega, Otto Reich [both conservative, former State Department officials], officials at the Pentagon and at the CIA are behind a plan to assassinate the right-wing presidential candidate to create chaos.”
Attacks on the U.S. are integral to the strategy of Maduro and the inner Chavista circle. Their current course aims to inflame the nationalistic militancy of Chavez’s followers. It is a calculated effort to distract Venezuelan voters from grave violations of the constitutional order and stark domestic challenges—inflation, fiscal deficits, devaluations, crime, and increasing food shortages—that have worsened since Maduro took de facto control of the government in early December 2012.
Governability and stability in Venezuela before and after the elections could become a major challenge. The Miami Herald’s veteran Venezuela watcher Andres Oppenheimer suggests that the April 14 elections will be neither fair nor genuinely free.
Maduro’s wild accusations also lower expectations for swift improvement in relations with the U.S. The limited leverage that the U.S. still poses over Venezuela resides in its commercial, financial, and energy links and in the frayed democratic consensus in the inter-American community. Like it or not, the Obama Administration finds itself drawn into Venezuela’s growing crisis of governability caused by the increasingly irresponsible behavior of Chavez knock-offs like Maduro.