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Maduro sends mixed messages about U.S.-Venezuela relationship

February 25, 2014 at 6:10 PM EST
The State Department expelled three Venezuelan officials from the U.S. after President Nicolas Maduro ordered three American diplomats leave his country. Now Maduro is proposing a new Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S. after years without an official representative. Meanwhile, 15 people have died in recent street clashes between protesters and police. Gwen Ifill talks to Girish Gupta of Reuters.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to the escalating tensions in the key oil state of Venezuela. Street protests against the socialist government show no sign of ending, and already-frayed relations between Washington and Caracas are growing even more strained.

The latest diplomatic jab came today from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman: In accordance with Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the State Department has declared three officials from Venezuela — from the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., persona non grata.

GWEN IFILL: That was the U.S. response to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s decision to expel three American diplomats last week. He accused the U.S. of conspiring with the Venezuelan opposition to overthrow him.

On the streets, though, it’s gone far beyond a war of words. Protesters have barricaded major streets in Caracas and other cities. And, yesterday, one person was killed in a clash with police, raising the toll to 15 dead and 150 wounded in the last two weeks.

At the same time, thousands of government supporters mounted motorcycles in the capital in a show of solidarity with Maduro. The president himself has sent mixed messages to Washington, lashing out last week, yet offering an olive branch this week.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, Venezuela (through interpreter): I have decided to name an ambassador to the United States to see what happens. I want to have a dialogue with the United States because I want peace, respect, a relationship as equals with the United States, and I invite the opposition to accompany me in that.

GWEN IFILL: Conspicuously absent from the leadership meeting in Caracas was Venezuela’s most prominent opposition leader, two-time presidential candidate Governor Henrique Capriles.

HENRIQUE CAPRILES RADONSKI, Former Venezuelan Presidential Candidate (through interpreter): I am not going to a meeting with the federal council to help him save face. I’m not going to be like the orchestra on the Titanic. The boat is sinking, and I am the one who is playing the music?  No, sir, Nicolas, you are not going to use me.

GWEN IFILL: Another prominent opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, remains jailed, after surrendering to face charges of instigating violence.

From prison, he passed his wife this handwritten letter, which was circulated on Twitter. In it, Lopez told his supporters: “I’m fine. I ask you not to give up. I won’t.”

Meanwhile, Maduro has called for another national summit tomorrow.

I spoke to Girish Gupta, Venezuela correspondent for the Reuters News Agency, a short time ago.

Girish, thank you for joining us.

Why are we getting such mixed messages from Nicolas Maduro about his relationship with the U.S.?

GIRISH GUPTA, Reuters:

We really are getting mixed messages, as you say, from Nicolas Maduro, about his relationship with the state. Last week he kicked out two U.S. diplomats, this week that Washington in turn in a tit-for-tat move which is always what happens, they kicked out three of Venezuela’s own diplomats.

But at the same time, Nicolas Maduro is saying that he wants some dialogue with the U.S. He’s also saying that he wants to appoint an ambassador to Washington.

This move, this idea of kicking out diplomats and blaming the U.S. when times get tough is not new.

Your viewers might remember in 2006 when Hugo Chavez took the stand at the United Nations, he called George Bush the devil. When (INAUDIBLE) in fact just a few hours beforehand, Nicolas Maduro kicked out a couple of ambassadors — a couple of diplomats — sorry.

And then in September, again, Nicolas Maduro kicked out some diplomats from the U.S. So, it’s a tried and tested move. But when we look at relationship that the U.S. has with Venezuela, it’s better to look at the oil and the money that’s changing hands, as opposed to necessarily the rhetoric and the politics.

The U.S. remains one of — well, it remains the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil. Venezuela is the fourth biggest supplier, I think, to the United States, and that really says it all.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about what’s happening internally. Who are the protesters on the streets, first of all?

GIRISH GUPTA: So what we’re seeing right now are huge protests across the country. So we’re seeing them in Caracas, I’ve seen lots of — I think every night for the last couple of weeks we’ve seen guys pelting stones and petrol bombs towards policeman who in return are sending over tear gas and occasionally rubber bullets.

Now, this has gone on — this is going on every night in Caracas. It’s mainly a wealthier area of town known as Plaza Alta Mira. You’re also getting this across the country and that’s more important, that’s the more organic part of these protests. It all began in Tetra, which is a western state known for being quite feisty for want of a better word.

Now that’s continuing with even more violence, with even more passion, than what we’re seeing in Caracas.

What we’re seeing is that this protest is much more organic than what we have necessarily seen before.

Protesters are out. And they tell me. I ask them, who do you support? Do you support Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez perhaps, the more radical opposition leader who is now in jail, as your viewers might know?

And they tell me they don’t care. They don’t care about the opposition leadership. They just want a change. They want an end to the problems that this country faces, the inflation, 56.3 percent inflation over the last year. They want an end to crime. There’s 70 deaths every single day in this country this year. That’s two and-a-half times that of a Iraq last year for about the same populations.

But the protesters themselves, yes, they are primarily (INAUDIBLE) but now everyone’s jumping in on this. There are a lot of people, business leaders, businesspeople, the middle classes, who are not happy with the status quo here.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, that — these protests are beginning to die out, or are they pretty much continuing every single day?

GIRISH GUPTA: Well, they do seem to be continuing. And that surprised I think myself and most people here. I expected a week ago things to die down.

But every morning now, we see barricades all over Caracas with trash on fire, debris on fire in the streets and blocking the roads. And it does seem to be continuing. I ask people why and how long they can go on for. And they told me they’re going to keep going. Why not? They have got nothing to lose, they say.

Now, whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, because there are people who need to work and need to keep earning money, who need to go to school. So, we’re going to have to see. It’s surprising to me how long it’s lasted and just how widespread it is here. We’re going to see how it goes the next few weeks.

GWEN IFILL: Is Maduro himself — he was allied with Hugo Chavez. Is he now in danger because of these protests, or is he still arm’s length from them?

GIRISH GUPTA: Well, that’s the big question.

Now, the protesters, like I said, they don’t necessarily have a leadership, but they do want to get rid of Maduro at the end of the day, because they know that he’s not going to — he’s not going to change his policy necessarily.

Is Maduro in danger? It’s very difficult to say. Now, he’s not Hugo Chavez. You have got to remember that Hugo Chavez, for all the problems that there were in this country — and there are — he was able to hold things together. He had this amazing charisma which Maduro doesn’t have.

Maduro also needs to impress his own party. And that’s why sometimes you see him making more radical moves and using more radical rhetoric than even Chavez did. Now, there’s two ways this can go. This can either get more extreme and the protests can continue, or there could be some dialogue between Maduro and Henrique Capriles.

They did plan to speak this week. However, that got put on the back burner at least because — frankly, because of the language they have been using towards each other. Maduro calls the protesters fascist Nazis. Capriles said yesterday in a press conference that the world sees Maduro as someone who is committing genocide. That’s very strong language, and I can’t see those two combining and sitting at a table to discuss.

GWEN IFILL: Girish Gupta of Reuters News Agency in Venezuela for us, thank you so much.