Hugo Chávez made him president, but it might have taken the United States to make him a leader.
Nicolas Maduro fumbled almost every chance he got during his first two years in office, as oil prices plummeted alongside his approval ratings. But before he could get booed or pushed off stage completely, the U.S. government threw him a lifeline this week by labeling Venezuela a threat to national security and thrusting his hapless government back into Latin America's limelight.
Now, the folly-prone mustachioed presidente has an unlikely second chance to finally step into the regional leadership role that Chávez created for him two years ago.
And he's determined not to blow it again. Maduro has spent the week reaching out to friends, neighbors and countrymen to drum up support for his embattled government and return Venezuela to the role of formidable foe to the United States.
This weekend will be the first test of Maduro's second chance at regional protagonism. The Union of South American Nations has called an "urgent" meeting in Ecuador to draft a regional response to the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. If Maduro can make hay while the sun is shining, he could position himself to strut into the Summit of the Americas next month with a sudden relevancy that was unthinkable just last week.
And if early reaction from other Latin American nations is any indication of what will happen tomorrow in Ecuador, expect Maduro to get a strong boost from his neighbors, who don't take kindly to U.S. bullying.
Nicaragua's ruling Sandinista Front, which backs Venezuela on all matters big and small, was the first government to express its “total, unconditional and profound” solidarity with the Maduro government, and blast the U.S. for its “meddlesome threats.”
“The brutal and unprecedented onslaught against the constitutional government of the President of Nicolas Maduro and the Bolivarian people of Venezuela are, in language and actions, what we have always denounced — an undeniable continuity of the colonialist politics of the North American empire by those who have served, and continues to serve, with insatiable zeal, the desire to control and dominate our natural resources, our political processes, our economic processes, our social processes and all those who live on the planet and the continent,” reads a breathless declaration of solidarity issued by the Nicaraguan government against the "Yankee declaration." It goes on like that for five more grammatically challenged paragraphs that dance in and out of lucidity.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, a fellow traveler in the Venezuelan-led leftist bloc of countries known as ALBA, responded to the U.S. sanctions with a flurry of tweets with a character count spilling from one tweet into the next.
…a state of national emergency to confront this 'threat." This must be some kind of bad joke, which reminds us of the darkest hours…Correa wrote in his third tweet, before trailing off to the fourth.
Bolivian President Evo Morales also had some harsh words for Obama, warning he could face a hostile reception in Panama next month. “Obama should apologize to Latin America, and especially Venezuela,” Morales said. “Otherwise he’s going to find he’ll be meeting with anti-imperialist presidents and governments” at the summit.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner posted a lengthy reaction on her Facebook page, stating “The U.S.’ characterization of Venezuela not only causes consternation because it’s unusually harsh, almost threatening, but also because it’s astonishing.”
Curiously enough, the most long-winded man on the planet — the guy who once spoke for seven hours before taking a dramatic pause to sip a glass of water — had the shortest reaction to the U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. Fidel Castro, whose government has been propped up by Venezuela for the past decade, could only muster a two-sentence reaction, congratulating Maduro for his "brilliant and valiant" message to the nation following Monday's announcement of the U.S.' "the brutal plans" for Venezuela. Castro's signature took up as much space as his letter.
Most of the countries that have backed Maduro thus far are the ones that owe Venezuela the most money. But that's Venezuela's card to play. And now that he's back in the game, you can bet Maduro isn't going to leave his chips on the table again.
Kevin Gray contributed reporting to this piece.