The escalating political crisis in Venezuela has set off alarms in Washington. But there's little the U.S. has been able to do, aside from criticize the jailing of opposition figures or the rising death toll as protesters continue to take to the streets, blaming the government for high inflation and crime.
The Obama administration had tried to improve relations with Venezuela, but the new president, Nicolas Maduro, like the late Hugo Chavez before him, tends to blame the U.S. for the country's problems. The two countries haven't even exchanged ambassadors in recent years.
Maduro says he wants to send an ambassador to Washington to better explain what's happening in his country. But just recently he expelled three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of plotting against his government.
That has U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sounding frustrated. He told MSNBC he has tried reaching out to Maduro's administration in the past year.
"Regrettably, President Maduro keeps choosing to blame the United States for things we are not doing or for things that they are unhappy about in their own economy and their own society," Kerry says.
"We are prepared to have a change in this relationship. This tension between our countries has gone on too long in our view," Kerry said. "But we are not going to sit around and be blamed for things we've never done and see our diplomats declared persona non grata and sent out of the country for things they didn't do."
This week, the State Department retaliated by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats.
At this point, relations remain in a slump, says Harold Trinkunas, director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
"The U.S. was prepared to take a bit of a risk with the new government to try to see if there was a possibility of having a more productive relationship with them, but that quickly fell apart," he says.
Now the two sides can't even talk rationally to each other, adds Carl Meacham, who runs the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He puts the blame mainly on Maduro, who he says uses the U.S. as a scapegoat.
"He's accused the United States of being the puppet master and controlling what the opposition is doing," Meacham says. "He accuses the United States of being behind alleged efforts to remove him from power, and these accusations are baseless."
Meacham sees this as a sign of desperation for Maduro, who doesn't have the same populist appeal as Chavez did.
"He's desperate to redirect attention away from the troubles that he's having in Venezuela with the opposition, with constant protests in the streets of major cities and with some questions that are starting to come up within his own coalition about his ability to really perform as a strong leader," Meacham says.
What can the U.S. do to have any influence? Not much, says Trinkunas of the Brookings Institution, because relations are just too toxic.
"Almost anything the U.S. says and does will be used against it. We have to keep that in mind, and I think the State Department does have an interest in a 'do no harm' policy, first and foremost," Trinkunas says. "But it also has an interest in upholding the international norms associated with defense of human rights and democracy in the hemisphere."
And that means raising concerns about the crisis in Venezuela with regional organizations or with countries that have more influence than the U.S. does. Trinkunas says that won't be easy. The two countries with the most influence — China and Cuba — support Maduro. Two others — Brazil and Colombia — don't seem to be interested in getting more involved.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, meantime, plans to visit Venezuela in the coming months. He's been urging the government and the opposition to reduce tensions, but his aides say he has no plans to mediate.
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