It's that time of year when the world's tyrannies flock to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York with all the predictability of birds flying south for the winter. This year, however, their numbers were noticeably depleted.
True, the fork-tongued Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, was on hand to deny the Holocaust in one breath, while calling for "time-bound, results-oriented" talks on his country's nuclear program in another. And the aging Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe gave a vintage performance denouncing the "illegal and filthy sanctions" imposed on his brutal regime. But the Sudanese leader, Omar al Bashir, stayed away, fearful perhaps that he would be arrested on war-crimes charges upon landing in New York. And so did Venezuela's President, Nicolas Maduro, for reasons that will compel us to question whether he has lost his mind.
As I noted here recently, in the five months since Maduro won the presidency in an election widely regarded as fraudulent, barely a day goes by without him excitedly unveiling some new American plot to unseat him, or assassinate him, or destroy Venezuela's groaning economy. Despite all these lurking dangers, Maduro nonetheless decided that he would attend and speak at this week's 68th session of the General Assembly.
Winging his way to New York from a state visit to China, Maduro got as far as Vancouver. Rather than continuing eastwards, he elected to return to Caracas, where he visited a television studio to explain to a national audience why he was home early:
One of the alleged plots could have caused violence in New York and the other could have affected his physical safety, Maduro said in a national address carried on television and radio yesterday.
"The clan, the mafia of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega once again had planned a crazy, terrible provocation that can't be described in any other way," Maduro said, referring to two former U.S. officials he frequently accuses of plots against Venezuela.
Reich, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, was accused by Maduro in March this year of planning the assassination of Henrique Capriles, Maduro's opponent in the presidential election, as part of a plan to engineer a coup against the ruling chavistas. Reich's rebuttal at the time is worth citing, simply because it is equally applicable now:
Though Maduro's strategy is not original, it is not as dull-witted as it appears. With the election in Venezuela scheduled for April 14, less than a month away, every day that the media focus on non–existent conspiracies is one day less that Venezuelans hear there may be a peaceful, honest, and democratic alternative to the Maduro regime.
Every day Venezuelans talk about foreign devils, they don't discuss shortages of water and electricity, of cornmeal and cooking oil, of soap and diapers, of antibiotics and insulin. It is one day less to wonder how Caracas became the third most violent city in the world and about the 150,000 Venezuelan victims of homicide in the 14 years of 21st Century Socialism.
Yesterday, Roger Noriega made much the same point as his ostensible partner in crime. "I think Maduro is under more pressure than I am, and his comments reflect that," Noriega told the Miami Herald. "He needs a boogeyman."
In Venezuela itself, there is increasing concern that Maduro's confrontational stance towards the U.S., which imports around 900,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil on a daily basis, will carry negative economic consequences. In response, the Venezuelan regime is now orienting its foreign policy towards countries that are ideological bedfellows, but that won't bleed the country dry at the same time—as does Cuba, for years the closest ally of the late Hugo Chavez, and the beneficiary of $7 billion worth of subsidized oil annually.
Enter China. Maduro's trip to Beijing quickly followed the announcement of a $14 billion deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation for a project to develop the Junín 10 block in Venezuela's Orinoco region, an area that holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world. China currently imports 600,000 barrels of oil per day from Venezuela, a figure that Maduro wants to boost to the point where the Chinese, and not the Americans, are the biggest consumers of Venezuela's main export. After all, breaking the economic dependency on the United States has been a central obsession of ruling Socialists since they came to power in 1999.
The Chinese also perceive important benefits. Suspicious of the Obama administration's much-vaunted "pivot" to East Asia, Beijing is happy to seize on opportunities in America's backyard. As the Mexican economist Enrique Dussel Peters noted in a recent paper on Chinese overseas investment, between 2000 and 2011, Latin America and the Caribbean became the second largest recipient of Chinese investment after Hong Kong. Dussel writes that 87 percent of this investment, directed mainly at raw materials, came from state-owned companies that are beholden to the Communist Party and its satellite institutions. In other words, the political imperatives here are as important, if not more so, than any fiscal considerations.
The Obama administration won't be able to stop Maduro's fulminations about assassinations and coups. Nor should it want to—the more frequent these accusations, the less that Venezuelans trust him. The real strategic challenge here is the relationship with China, and the lifeline that Beijing is dangling to the proponents of "21st Century Socialism" on the American continent.