U.S. sanctions may be godsend for struggling Venezuelan leader

By Alexandra Ulmer CARACAS (Reuters) - At the start of the year, a grave-faced President Nicolas Maduro promised "God would provide" after oil prices crashed by half, exacerbating Venezuela's deep recession, chronic shortages and sky-high inflation. Now, though, it seems Uncle Sam might be the one providing an unlikely helping hand to the socialist leader at one of the worst moments for the ruling "Chavismo" movement. The United States on Monday ratcheted up a diplomatic spat by declaring Venezuela a national security threat and ordering sanctions against seven officials. Maduro roared back against "imperialist" aggression, promptly appointed one of the sanctioned officials as his interior minister, and said the U.S. threat justified him seeking decree powers. Suddenly, the unpopular leader has an excuse to crank up the revolutionary rhetoric and try to fire up supporters, copying a tactic used skillfully for more than a decade by his mentor and predecessor, the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez. A new fight with the enemy to the north may also help unite disparate ruling Socialist Party factions and distract Venezuelans from relentless and depressing talk about their day-to-day economic problems. Though the impact would likely be short-term, it could still be useful with legislative elections looming, where some pollsters have forecast defeat for the government. "I'm satisfied with Maduro and even more now that he's taking a tough stance," said Macrina Seijas, a seamstress in Cacique Tiuna, a showpiece "socialist city" perched on a hill overlooking Caracas. Like many fellow 'Chavistas,' Seijas, a 42 year-old mother of four, accuses Washington of fomenting an "economic war" to topple his government and gain control of the OPEC country's massive oil reserves. The government claims U.S.-backed opponents and unscrupulous entrepreneurs are hoarding heavily subsidized goods and smuggling gasoline and diapers across the border into Colombia in a bid to create problems and sink the economy. Most economists, however, blame flailing national output and price and currency controls that distort the economy and curb imports. In recent weeks, Maduro has accused Washington of promoting a coup plot against him, in league with local opposition politicians, to be led by local air force officials. Opponents say the coup claims are a smokescreen but in the poor neighborhoods that provided the bedrock of Chavez's support for 14 years and handed Maduro his 2013 election win, the anti-imperialist line still has plenty of sympathetic ears. "All these measures are good because we've had enough, we've had enough of being the United States' backyard!" said Victor Quintero, spokesman of a militant "colectivo" group in Caracas' low-income La Pastora neighborhood. 'PLAYING INTO MADURO'S HANDS' Washington's sanctions hand Maduro, whose popularity has slipped to the low 20s according to local pollster Datanalisis, ammunition to back his view of foreign sabotage. "Simply in terms of political strategy, this plays into his hands," said Venezuela expert David Smilde, a sociologist with Tulane University. "It quells internal dissent and puts the opposition on its heels." Chavez, who survived a U.S.-endorsed coup attempt in 2002, constantly invoked his ideological foe to boost support at home. But Maduro, a mustachioed former bus driver and union activist who is as uninspiring as Chavez was captivating, looks unlikely to stage a lasting comeback even if the row with the United States gives him a temporary bounce in popularity. The conflict can only go so far in distracting a country with near 70 percent inflation, the world's second highest murder rate and a crackdown on opponents. "Why isn't he taking positive measures instead of bad ones? I'm sick of all this fighting," lamented Yenni Santana, a beautician in Caracas' Catia slum who backed Chavez and then voted for his chosen successor - a decision she now regrets. "Every day it's worse," said Santana, 33, adding that she has been unable to find flour, toilet paper or coffee in stores. "I don't know when this man will open his eyes." The Socialist Party will be pressed to retain its majority in parliamentary elections to be held by the end of the year, as its traditionally poor base of support suffers the brunt of the economic crisis. Playing the anti-U.S. card still resonates in a region scarred by Washington's support of coups during the Cold War but if milk and medicines don't appear on Venezuelan shelves soon, Maduro's strategy may not whip up supporters for long. "We agree imperialist interference should be condemned," said Gonzalo Gomez, a leader of "Socialist Tide", a dissident faction within the PSUV ruling party which lampoons Maduro's administration for corruption. "But we're against the government trying to evade responsibility here." (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Kieran Murray)