In the months immediately following Nicolas Maduro's election as president of Venezuela, he seemed to want to prove the naysayers wrong. I had been one of them, calling Hugo Chavez's designated heir-apparent "viscerally anti-American" in an opinion piece for this newspaper in 2012.
Because of the strained relations between the two countries, neither has had an ambassador at its embassy since late 2010. But there were some encouraging signs. In June, two months after he was elected, Maduro sent his personal friend and political ally, Calixto Ortega, to Washington as the charge d'affaires (acting ambassador) at the Venezuelan Embassy, with the expectation that if relations improved, Ortega would become ambassador.
I met with Ortega, an old friend, on his first day in Washington, and he told me that, before his death, Chavez had urged Maduro to improve relations with the United States.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry went out of his way at the Organization of American States General Assembly in June to speak to his Venezuelan counterpart. And the State Department held a number of conversations with Ortega aimed at resuming diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level.
But then, on Sept. 30, President Maduro put an end to the warming relations. He announced that he was giving U.S. Charge d'Affaires Kelly Keiderling and two other diplomats 48 hours to leave Venezuela. Maduro claimed the Americans had been meeting with the "extreme right" and accused them of sabotaging the country's electrical system. He actually said in English, "Yankees go home." So much for a thaw.
What's really going on? Maduro needed a scapegoat. The Venezuelan economy is a mess. Inflation is running at more than 40% over last year. The black-market exchange rate for the bolivar is almost six times the official rate. Shortages of consumer products are common. (Maduro's solution to a toilet paper shortage was to order the Venezuelan National Guard to occupy a company that produces paper products.) Increasingly, Maduro blames his country's domestic economic woes on sabotage, hoarding and conspiracies. He even cited Spiderman movies as the reason the country's murder rate has doubled in 14 years.
But accusing Keiderling of conspiracy and sabotage may be his most ridiculous assertion of all. Keiderling is a highly professional and experienced Foreign Service officer who has served in Zambia, Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Botswana, Cuba and Moldova. The idea that she is somehow encouraging the opposition to sabotage Venezuela's electrical system is absurd.
If anyone ruined the electrical system, it was the government of Venezuela, which nationalized the electric company of Caracas in 2007. When AES, a U.S. company, owned Electricidad de Caracas, there were few blackouts. Since 2007, blackouts have become common. In early September, some 70% of the country was left in the dark for almost 24 hours.
Once Keiderling was sent packing, in the tit-for-tat rules of diplomacy Ortega and two other Venezuelan diplomats were informed late on Oct. 1 that they had 48 hours to leave the United States. That's a shame.
A diplomat's job is to meet with politicians across the political spectrum, and I certainly hope that ours were doing this in Venezuela, just as I hope Ortega was meeting with American leaders of all stripes. How else is a diplomat supposed to convey an accurate picture of a country to his or her government back home?
In times when relations between two countries are rocky, there is an even greater need to have ambassadors in each other's capitals. Vigorous diplomacy reduces the chance of misunderstandings. Still, it's easy to see why the United States is losing patience. As State Department Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson told me: "We had hoped the new Venezuelan leadership might offer a chance to improve ties, but thus far it's the same old story: creating unnecessary conflicts with the U.S. to distract from addressing the real challenges facing its citizens."
The latest hostilities are a lost opportunity for Venezuela. If anyone could have helped Maduro improve Venezuela's relations with the United States, it was Ortega. Now we are back to posturing and shouting past each other.
Charles Shapiro, president of the Institute of the Americas at UC San Diego, was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 2002 to 2004. Twitter: @ioa_shapiro.