Mastermind or scapegoat? Besieged South American leaders blame Venezuela’s Maduro for historic wave of unrest.

Mastermind or scapegoat? Besieged South American leaders blame Venezuela’s Maduro for historic wave of unrest.

As the streets of South America convulse in the region’s worst bout of social unrest in years, a chorus of critics on the political right are decrying what they see as one inescapable link — the nefarious hand of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

This much is true: Regional leaders who once banded together to try to bring Maduro down are now suffering a pox on their own houses, even as socialist Venezuela’s regional allies are suddenly ascendant. But is Maduro really a Joker-like figure orchestrating increasingly violent protests from his lair in Caracas? Or is he just the perfect scapegoat to explain away the genuine anger now raging in multiple South American nations?

The answer, according to more than a dozen interviews with officials, politicians, analysts and protesters in multiple nations, might be a little of both.

“I think that what’s happening is mainly the product of national circumstances,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “That doesn’t mean there is no outside agitation. But to put the blame outside is to miss the point that there are fundamental domestic problems that can account for all this unrest.”

Senior officials from Ecuador, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere are nevertheless pointing the finger at Maduro for the outbreak of severe street protests — including the ongoing mayhem in ordinarily stable Chile, where at least 20 people have died in two weeks of clashes with security forces. Chile took the serious step this week of canceling major global summits on trade and climate changescheduled for November and December.

Chile’s protesters got a subway fare hike reversed. Now they want a new political system.

President Trump, in a call this week with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, denounced unspecified “foreign efforts” to undermine Chilean institutions, democracy and society.

Earlier, Michael Kozak, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, appeared to blame the Russians, telling the EFE news service that “we have identified on social networks false accounts that emanate from Russia, which are people who pretend to be Chilean, but in reality all the [messaging] they are doing is trying to undermine all Chilean institutions and society.”

Maduro, who has dealt with bouts of serious unrest of his own this year, has vacillated between appearing to claim credit for the multiple uprisings abroad and poking fun at his enemies’ accusations. At one point, he described the regional turmoil as part of a plan hatched at a meeting of Latin America’s far left in Caracas in July — the “Foro de Sao Paulo” hosted by his government.

But he has also joked that “they think I move my mustache and bring governments down. I’m thinking, ‘Which is the next government I want to overthrow?’ ”

Maduro, a leftist autocrat who has been declared a usurper and targeted for removal by the Trump administration and its regional allies, can at the very least gaze out across a smoldering region and see a far less dangerous landscape for his future than anyone would have predicted even just a few weeks ago.

Two of his most vocal regional critics — Ecuadoran President Lenín Morenoand Chile’s Piñera— have seen serious threats develop against their own administrations in the form of large-scale street protests this month against price hikes for gas, transit, electricity and other services.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who had called for Maduro to step down, lost his reelection bid last week to a left-wing Peronista ticket that included former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a longtime ally of Venezuela’s socialists. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a steadfast Maduro backer, has claimed victory in his country’s elections.

Maduro’s adversaries claim this is no coincidence.

In Chile last week, Piñera said the country was “at war against a powerful enemy” who “was willing to use violence and criminality with no limits even when it means the loss of lives.”

He did not specify who the enemy was, but the message was interpreted as a suggestion that Maduro was behind the violence that has racked the region’s most successful country.

Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, flatly accused Caracas of seditious intent.

“The winds of the Bolivarian regime pushed by Madurismo and the Cuban regime bring violence, looting, destruction, and a political aim to directly attack the democratic system and try to force interruptions to constitutional mandates,” he said in a statement last week. “We have seen these attempts documented in Ecuador and Colombia, we see them now in Chile.”

Ecuador’s Moreno has gone the furthest, claiming that Maduro is working with former president Rafael Correa — Moreno’s nemesis — to orchestrate a “coup” in Quito. He has claimed that the pair have sent “200 to 300” operatives disguised as Venezuelan migrants to sow chaos and topple his government.

Prosecutors in Quito are investigating possible Venezuelan links to $740,000 in cash that, according to people familiar with the investigation, was meant to be spent on anti-government activities.

Ecuadoran authorities have detained several leftist politicians who attended the Caracas summit. But they have yet to back up many of their allegations with proof. (Ecuadoran officials did not respond to requests for comment.)

In fact, some allegations have proved to be anything but concrete. Interior Minister María Paula Romo, for instance, heralded the Oct. 10 arrest of 17 foreigners, including several Venezuelan nationals, at Quito’s airport during the height of the riots in Ecuador. But all but two were later released by a judge for lack of evidence.

“Some of them were just Venezuelan Uber drivers picking people up at the airport,” said Sebastián Hurtado, president of the Ecuadoran political consultancy Profitas.

“I think the relationship is there, that Correa has asked for Maduro’s support,” he said. “But what kind of support, and how it is working, is a difficult question to answer.”

Amauri Chamorro, a political consultant who has worked with Correa and other left-wing leaders, attended the Caracas summit. He dismissed theories that it had sparked unrest around the continent as “ridiculous.”

“To believe that the forum of Sao Paulo determined, ordered and coordinated, and — most ridiculous of all — financed what has happened [in Chile and Ecuador] is a fantasy,” he said. “First, the forum doesn’t discuss this kind of thing. Second, the Sao Paulo forum doesn’t have the capacity to generate this. And third, this would be to completely ignore what is actually happening in these countries. It would be a grotesque analytical error.”

Guillermo González, president of the Chilean Equality Party, said he was one of 10 to 15 Chileans who attended the summit. They paid for their travel, but the Venezuelan government put them up in a state-owned hotel.

González expressed admiration for Venezuela and condemned regional leaders who have sought to oust Maduro. But he insisted that there were “no Venezuelans” involved in the social movement that has rocked Chile for nearly two weeks.

 “What is happening in Chile is happening everywhere,” he said. “The system has collapsed because people aren’t eating, or just pasta and rice. They have no housing, no health care.”

Rodrigo Perez, an 18-year old high school student in Chile, helped organize a turnstile-jumping campaign in mid-October to protest a Metro fare hike that led to the broader unrest still roiling the country.

He described the protests as wholly organic — a response to rising costs of living and harsh inequality in one of Latin America’s richest but most unequal nations.

The burning of Metro stations in October came as a “surprise” to student organizers, he said.

“We have questions about these fires, but social discontent has been growing because public policies have ignored education,” Perez said. “So students are becoming more radicalized. There is great frustration.”

In Chile, students and unionists involved in the protests say they do not view Venezuela — a failed state run by a cast of characters including alleged narco-traffickers — as any kind of a model to follow.

“Chavismo is not socialism — it is capitalism dressed up as socialism,” said Simon Bousquet, 32, an information-technology specialist and union leader who has participated in the Chilean protests, referring to the Venezuelan brand of socialism named after Hugo Chávez, the late founder of its socialist state.

“Venezuela went from a neoliberal government to a bureaucracy,” he said. “It is not a model to emulate.”

Yet there is little doubt that forces on the left, whether influenced by the Venezuelans and Cubans or not, have sought to seize the momentum of the protest to push their own agendas, including demands for a new constitution in Chile.

“In big protest cycles like this one, many interests come into play,” said Miguel Ángel Martínez Meucci, a political scientist at the Austral University of Chile.

“For some of these actors, the objective is not to obtain social improvements but to subvert the instituted order and propel the surge of another one,” he said, “or even to nourish the radical agendas that would facilitate their path to power.” es un sitio web oficial del Gobierno Argentino