As far as Secretary of State John Kerry is concerned, last Sunday's municipal elections in Venezuela resulted in an uncomplicated endorsement of Nicolas Maduro's regime. Interviewed by the Miami Herald, Kerry remarked that "there are some questions of irregularities," before adding that "they [the elections] didn't produce the kind of change that I think a number of people thought they might."
Then came the inevitable attempt to revive the bilateral talks that were first held last June. These were unilaterally shut down by the Venezuelan government one month later, when Maduro, angered by the criticisms of Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, over his "crackdown on civil society," declared a "zero-tolerance" policy "for gringo aggression against Venezuela." But Kerry evidently thinks a further attempt to soothe chavista anxieties is warranted. As he told the Herald:
"We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship. Our hope is that the government will stop using our relationship as an excuse for not doing other things internally, and really opening up more to the people. We've been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don't think really exist."
Those "differences" include the accusation that the U.S. poisoned the now deceased comandante, Hugo Chavez, and that American diplomats stationed in the country were encouraging "acts of sabotage." And going by Foreign Minister Elia Jaua's response to the Kerry interview, the belief that the U.S. is trying to bring down Maduro's regime remains deeply-held:
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua stated on Wednesday that in order to bring US-Venezuela relations back to normal, the United States must "once and for all" end "financing Venezuelan opposition organizations" and stop former officials allegedly plotting against the country.
"For the purpose of advancing in the normalization of relations with the United States, once and for all that Government must stop financing opposition groups and purported non-governmental organizations in Venezuela," Jaua said in a press conference.
The "former officials" referred to are Bush administration appointees Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, whom Maduro, in September, described as a "mafia" that derailed his visit to the United Nations by planning an unspecified "crazy, terrible provocation." And nothing Kerry says will sway Jaua's conviction that there is a seamless connection between the previous administration, the Obama administration, and Venezuela's struggling opposition.
Crucially, what is lost in Kerry's fruitless overtures is an honest assessment of Sunday's election results. It is true that the ambition of the opposition MUD coalition to turn the elections into a national referendum on Maduro was frustrated by an abstention rate of around 40 percent. But that number, which suggests a lack of faith in the electoral process in the wake of last April's fraud-stained presidential poll, is hardly a resounding success for Maduro either.
In addition, the MUD made important gains in the cities. Antonio Ledezma, the feisty mayor of Metropolitan Caracas, was reelected to his post, and opposition candidates were victorious in major municipalities in Maracaibo, Valencia and–notably–Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chavez, where his brother Adan serves as governor. These are no mean achievements, given the context: in the weeks leading up to the election, Maduro received a much-needed boost by forcing merchants to sell luxury consumer goods at prices slashed by up to 1,000 percent, while his near-total control of the Venezuelan media led Vicente Diaz, the sole independent member of the regime-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE,) to denounce the election campaign as "the most outrageous" in the country's history.
Now that the municipal elections are over, the opposition finds itself with a near-impossible challenge. Parliamentary elections aren't scheduled until 2015; meanwhile, Maduro has amassed the powers of a dictator, thanks to an Enabling Act that allows him to bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree. By not even mentioning the opposition's successes last weekend, John Kerry has bolstered Maduro's sense of his invincibility, thus ensuring that Venezuela has taken another step along the road to a one-party state.