Nicolas Maduro’s ghost writer should be commended for making the Venezuelan dictator sound, in his op-ed in today’s New York Times, like a reasonable man in search of a reasonable solution. You would never know, on the basis of this article alone, that this is the same Maduro who claims to have encountered the ghost of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, on the Caracas subway system; who instinctively denounces his opponents as “Nazis” and “fascists”; who alleged a conspiracy involving former Bush administration officials to assassinate a senior opposition leader to “create chaos” in Venezuela.
What the piece–written in reaction to a stirring Times op-ed by Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader incarcerated by the Maduro regime on charges of “terrorism”–attempts to do is persuade the reader that Venezuela is really a socialist paradise warmed by the Caribbean sun. Hence, Maduro trots out the some of the standard themes which are familiar to observers of chavismo, for example that the revolution inaugurated by Chavez has shattered income inequality, along with former President Jimmy Carter’s belief that Venezuela’s electoral process “is the best in the world” (an old but much utilized quote that will serve as an eternal reminder of Carter’s obsequious stance toward the chavistas).
But there are other themes that are, significantly, absent from the op-ed. Until quite recently, the chavistas made much of the bold percentage increases in the national minimum wage, but Maduro wisely chose not to mention this “fact.” Wisely, because Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, has been devalued by an accumulated total of 2,000 percent over the last 15 years, rendering meaningless any minimum wage boosts. As CENDAS, a Caracas-based research institute, has discovered, thanks to the shortages and inflation that have worsened radically during Maduro’s first year in power, each Venezuelan now needs four minimum wages to meet basic expenses for food, clothing, and health care.
In tandem with the omissions are the lies and distortions that one would expect from Maduro; for example, the fabricated charge that students protesting the sexual assault of a young female by National Guard members “burned down a university in Táchira State.” He demonizes the last two months of protest as the temper tantrum of a spoiled, entitled middle class, asserting that “the protests have received no support in poor and working-class neighborhoods.” What he doesn’t add is that the overwhelming presence, in the same neighborhoods, of the paramilitary colectivos is something of a disincentive to participating in demonstrations that highlight the damage the regime is doing to everyone, especially the poor and vulnerable.
Maduro ends his piece with an appeal for “dialogue to move forward.” Who, exactly, will he dialogue with? Leopoldo Lopez is in jail, while his colleague Maria Corina Machado has been stripped of her parliamentary immunity. As the perceptive Argentinian journalist Daniel Lozano noted in his report of the attempt by Machado and her supporters to reach the National Assembly building, what they found resembled a “military fortress”:
An enormous deployment of the National Guard blocked off the National Assembly. An attempt at dialogue with them, once again, did no good. A group of government supporters surrounded the deputy shouting “Imperialist! Traitor! Murderer!” The rising tension forced Machado and her group to abandon the scene…Machado couldn’t speak to the chamber but made use of the street stage to ask a question. And to answer it. “Why do they want to silence me? Why do they want to do that? Because they are terrified of the truth and people on the streets fighting for their liberty.”
And it’s not just Lopez and Machado. Enzo Scarano and Daniel Ceballos, the respective mayors of the opposition strongholds of San Diego and San Cristobal, have been summarily dismissed and imprisoned. Nobody yet knows the total human cost of the regime’s brutal operation to drive demonstrators off the streets of San Cristobal. As for Maduro’s laughable statement in his Times piece that the government will prosecute human-rights abusers in the security forces, the complete collapse of Venezuela’s independent judicial system over the last decade is the best counter-argument to that claim.
Inter alia, Maduro says, “My government has also reached out to President Obama, expressing our desire to again exchange ambassadors. We hope his administration will respond in kind.” Responding “in kind” would signal that the U.S. government is, at best, indifferent to the fate of Venezuela under continued chavista rule. Far better to point out that the friendship of the United States is a privilege, and not a right. If Maduro releases the thousand-odd political prisoners detained during the protests and reins in the colectivos, perhaps then, and only then, might there be something to discuss.