Fernando Llano / AP
Monday, March 24, 2014 | 9:55 p.m.
CARACAS, Venezuela — U.S.-Venezuela relations have been deteriorating for years, and for members of the socialist-governed county's better off, the failed diplomacy is suddenly endangering a dearly held value: Disney World.
The U.S. Embassy announced Sunday it will no longer issue tourist visas to first-time applicants, the latest in what analysts consider a series of increasingly hostile, politically motivated gestures that the two countries have made since anti-government protests broke out in Venezuela five weeks ago.
Angel Pirela, a mechanical engineer at a government-owned oil refinery, worries the decision may prevent him from taking his 2-year-old daughter to Disney World. He had been thinking of getting her a U.S. visa at the same time he renewed his, but said his wife convinced him to wait until a calmer time.
It may be too late.
Pirela was among dozens of well-dressed Venezuelans waiting in the perennial line in front of the U.S. Embassy on Monday. As the hours passed, they discussed the horror of potentially losing access to the Florida shopping, clubbing and lounging that has long been a virtual birth-right of even middle class Venezuelans.
The embassy said it would no longer schedule appointments for first-time visas because it does not have enough staff after the expulsion of three consular officials by President Nicolas Maduro last month and a delay by his administration in authorizing the arrival of other American officials.
Both the expulsion of the diplomats and the limiting of visas seemed harsh to Pirela, though he put the blame on Maduro for provoking the U.S.
"At first I didn't believe it. It's the kind of decision countries make when they're at war," he said, sweating through a checkered button-down purchased in Miami, and fingering a cellphone he bought there in 2012.
Experts say the policy change indicates relations between the two countries have reached a significant low.
They haven't been good for years. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush initially endorsed an unsuccessful coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002, and Chavez, Maduro's fiery mentor, called Bush a "devil" at the United Nations in 2006. The two countries have not had ambassadors in each other's capitals since 2010.
But just as the protests have emboldened more Venezuelans to air complaints about inflation, shortages of basic goods and high crime, the unrest has pushed both governments to sharpen their criticism of one another.
Rhetoric began escalating in February when Venezuela expelled the three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of organizing student protests as part of a "fascist" conspiracy with the opposition to topple his administration. The U.S. denied the accusations and reciprocated by expelling three Venezuelan officials from Washington.
Almost daily protests in Venezuela frequently are followed by clashes between small groups of anti-government activists and security forces. Human rights groups say the unrest has caused at least 32 deaths and hundreds of injuries on both sides.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said recently that Maduro's tough response to the protests remind him of a time when "strongmen governed through violence and oppression." Days later Secretary of State John Kerry called Maduro's response a "terror campaign."
During a meeting of the Washington-based Organization of American States earlier this month, the U.S. was one of only three countries to vote against a resolution expressing "full support" for Maduro's attempts at dialogue with his opponents. Some U.S. lawmakers are calling for sanctions against oil-rich Venezuela, but the idea has yet to win the support of the Obama administration.
Maduro insists he wants to improve relations with what he calls the "Empire," even proposing a new ambassador to Washington. But with so many false starts at reconciliation in the past, the U.S. has dismissed the move as a stunt.
The visa change is a way of signaling the United States' mounting displeasure, said Gregory Weeks, a political science professor specializing in Latin America at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte
"I see it more as a warning than playing hardball," he said.
The unrest is giving American officials pause for another reason as well, said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. If the instability continues, masses of Venezuelans could start immigrating to the U.S., he said.
The possibility of flight was on the mind of art gallery owner Hernan Gimenez as he waited in line at the U.S. Embassy, which overlooks the sooty concrete high-rises of Caracas.
"I need to have options if something happens here, especially now," he said.
But barring a state collapse, he said, he might only want to take a trip to a certain theme park in Florida.