Venezuela Walks Trump Tightrope After Years of Anti-U.S. Talk

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  • With crisis at home Maduro seen trying to avoid fights abroad
  • He says little after U.S. slaps sanctions on vice president

A day after the U.S. accused Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami of being a drug kingpin and he tweeted his denial, his boss has remained relatively restrained. President Nicolas Maduro, who never misses an opportunity to blame all of his country’s ills on the "empire" to the north, has so far said little about the new administration, a position he has maintained since the election of Donald Trump.

During a 90-minute televised speech on Tuesday, Maduro fiercely defended his number two and spoke scornfully about his treatment by the U.S., saying he would work to get the sanctions reversed. But he has said virtually nothing about Trump himself. The lack of comment from one of the U.S.’s loudest antagonists has left some scratching their heads and others theorizing that the new president has flummoxed Maduro just as he has many corporate executives.

“Maduro understands that he can remain under the radar if he stays more quiet,” said Gregory Weeks, political scientist at the University of North Carolina. “Whether you’re Russia or Nordstrom,” he adds, “When you get Trump’s attention, bad things happen.”

‘Economic War’

For nearly two decades, U.S. presidents have served as something of a rhetorical punching bag for Venezuela’s ruling socialists. George W. Bush was dubbed “Mr. Danger,” ridiculed for what was perceived as his reckless foreign policy, and Barack Obama was constantly accused of waging an “economic war” that caused rampant food shortages and spiraling inflation.

“Being anti-imperialist is a fundamental pillar of being pro-Latin American,” explains Tomas Straka, a historian at Andres Bello Catholic University, in Caracas.

There appears to be a tentative, new approach. “I say, let’s wait and see,” Maduro said shortly after Trump took office.

Straka argued that, "At this very moment, facing Trump, there’s a hesitation to use this type of rhetoric." There are a number of explanations. One is that U.S. imports account for a nearly a third of Venezuelan crude production -- the country’s only significant export -- and nearly all of its cash earnings.

Trade Deals Torn Up

Trump has wasted no time locking horns with other neighbors, automakers and even local union leaders. Immigration is being restricted, trade deals torn up. But it remains unclear what the Trump presidency means for Venezuela.

After the late Hugo Chavez rose to power, Yankee bashing became a standard practice when government officials wanted to whip up public support at home and abroad. Leaders point to U.S. support of South American dictators, military interventions, even coups across the region and the Cuban embargo set up during the height of the Cold War.

Since Trump took office, a number of legislators have urged him to take a tougher line on Venezuela. A bipartisan group of 34 lawmakers sent a letter to the White House last week demanding sanctions and investigations into members of the Maduro government. Then on Monday, the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on El Aissami and a Venezuelan businessman under the “Kingpin” Act, adding them to a list reserved for major international drug traffickers.

Dismal Approval Ratings

But Maduro has kept his powder pretty dry. Some believe that since he is facing dismal approval ratings, a potential default and an opposition that has promised his ouster, wide-reaching sanctions or tariffs, he worries that even a tweet could spell disaster.

Others even see reason for Maduro to be optimistic. Trump’s choice of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State -- an oil man who has long cut deals with countries like Russia and Nigeria -- could mean the president is willing to look past ideology and enter a more transactional relationship with Venezuela, says Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer of international policy and public affairs at Columbia University.

And beyond politics, the two presidents have a bit of rhetorical style in common. In Trump, Maduro “sees a kindred spirit,” Sabatini says, “You don’t pick a fight with Trump; you praise him.”

That could be exactly what the Venezuelan president was trying to do in describing his new tough-talking counterpart last month: “All I’ll say is that he won’t be worse than Obama.”