CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s embattled new president, Nicolás Maduro, worked hard this week to strengthen diplomatic ties with neighbors, winning much-needed support from some of the continent’s biggest democracies as he faced accusations at home that his government stole April’s presidential election.
Visiting regional heavyweight Brazil last Thursday, Maduro won a seal of approval from President Dilma Rousseff, who pledged to expand trade with Venezuela. A day earlier, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had mobilized pro-Venezuela activists to fill a Buenos Aires soccer stadium and signed a range of bilateral cooperation accords with Maduro.
“We wish you great success with your presidential mandate and with your government,” Rousseff told Maduro at a news conference in Brasilia in which the two leaders laughed and exchanged hugs.
“We are a deeply democratic country,” Maduro responded. “We have an almost perfect electoral system.”
In a week of feverish diplomacy, Maduro’s efforts were matched by those of opposition leaders, who traveled to meet with legislators and journalists in Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. They asserted that the April 14 vote in Venezuela had been rife with irregularities, questioning whether Maduro really defeated his challenger, Henrique Capriles, and said the government had clamped down on its political adversaries ever since, even resorting to violence.
“Our intention was to show what’s been going on before lawmakers and governments,” Leopoldo López, who led small delegations to Peru, Argentina and Uruguay, said in an interview. “We want our neighbors to know of the instability in Venezuela.”
As protests picked up in the days after the vote, the government arrested a former general it accused of fomenting dissent, and government lawmakers were videotaped beating opposition congressmen in the National Assembly. Top officials, including Maduro, have also vowed to jail opposition leaders, among them Capriles and López.
But it was clear by Friday that Maduro, handpicked by the late president Hugo Chávez to be his successor, was securely ensconced in power. Governments from Mexico to Argentina appeared to see little amiss with the Venezuelan election, which electoral officials closely allied with the government said Maduro had won by a razor-thin margin.
“He shored up his support,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington group that tracks politics across the region. “These governments didn’t show much hesitation in embracing Maduro. They still see him as the main option, and there didn’t seem to be any hint that they were reconsidering their support for him.”
Many of the countries that Maduro reached out to have close trade ties with Caracas, which they see as a significant importer of their products or a vital supplier of subsidized oil. The issue of civil rights in Venezuela played little or no role in the diplomatic positions that several countries took, said Moisés Naím, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“Their silence speaks very eloquently to how much they weigh their economic interests and how little their democratic values weigh in their behavior,” said Naím, who is Venezuelan and opposes the Maduro government.
Not everything has gone Maduro’s way.
The Obama administration has so far refrained from recognizing his government. In Colombia, two former presidents — Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana — leveled criticisms against it. And in Paraguay and Peru, lawmakers eagerly met with Venezuelan opposition leaders, with one congresswoman in Lima, Lourdes Alcorta, going so far as to say, “Let’s be clear that there is no president in Venezuela,” but rather a usurper who seized power.
Peru’s foreign minister, Rafael Roncagliolo, called for “a climate of dialogue and tolerance” in Venezuela. His comments angered Maduro, who lashed out at the foreign minister, saying: “He’s wrong. Roncagliolo, you have made the mistake of your life.”
Later, however, Roncagliolo said he is working to convene a meeting of the regional Union of South American Nations to discuss the situation.
Overall, though, Maduro garnered praise from respected leaders such as Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, who during Maduro’s visit to Montevideo on Tuesday gushed about Venezuela’s new role in the regional trade group, Mercosur, of which Uruguay is a founding member. Maduro in turn pledged “a permanent supply of petroleum” to Uruguay.
In Caracas last Sunday, Maduro oversaw a gathering of the small Central American and Caribbean countries that make up the alliance Petrocaribe, in which Venezuela provides cut-rate oil. Maduro announced that two new members, Honduras and Guatemala, would be incorporated into Petrocaribe.
Gargantuan Brazil, the world’s seventh-largest economy, also sees big economic opportunities in a country deeply dependent on imported food and open to Brazil’s biggest construction firms. Rousseff said that under Maduro, the two countries would increase their trade, which in 2012 totaled $6 billion.
“I’m sure that with President Maduro, I will have the same high-level relationship that I had with President Chávez,” Rousseff said.
Maduro, in return, presented her with a gift: a large photograph of Chávez.
Paula Moure in São Paulo contributed to this report.
© 2013, The Washington Post