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Venezuela on the Brink - Commentary

While the rest of the world is coming to terms, in differing ways, with the Obama administration’s commitment to a weaker, humbler United States taking its place upon the global stage, in Venezuela, by contrast, you get the sense that time has stood still.

Last week, the country’s increasingly beleaguered president, Nicolas Maduro, yet again accused the United States of trying to engineer a coup against his government. Among the Washington foreign-policy elite, the phrase “regime change” has a peculiarly dated quality about it, but as far as Maduro is concerned, it remains the bedrock of America’s approach to international affairs. “We can’t let an empire that has been eyeing all of us pretend or think it has the right to sanction the country of Bolivar,” Maduro thundered, making an obligatory reference to the leader of Latin America’s struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire, who was also the principal political inspiration of his late predecessor, Comandante Hugo Chavez. “Every day they are looking to hurt our country,” Maduro continued. “But they have not stopped us. They will never stop us.”

Now, it is true that last December, the Obama administration signed into law new measures that would freeze the assets or revoke the visas of Venezuelan officials involved in the repression against last year’s pro-democracy protests, in which 43 people were killed in clashes with security forces across the country. And earlier this month, that list was expanded, though it remains unclear exactly how many officials are actually impacted.

Nonetheless, two factors remain clear. Firstly, these measures were disappointingly late. As the Washington Post noted, at the height of the crackdown, Obama “balked” at the idea of imposing sanctions. Secondly, as State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was at pains to point out–and on this one, we have no reason to disbelieve her–“the United States does not support political transitions by non-constitutional means.”

Still, Psaki was on the money when she labeled Maduro’s coup allegations as “ludicrous,” noting that it has become standard practice for the Venezuelan regime to deflect attention onto alleged American machinations as it lurches from one crisis to another.

In fact, those who experience Maduro’s wrath most directly are the opposition politicians within the country. Last year, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was incarcerated on trumped-up charges of organizing a coup, along with two opposition mayors, Daniel Ceballos and Enzo Scarano. Last week, they were joined in prison by Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, and another outspoken critic of the chavista regime. As the Economist reported, 80 members of the security forces were deployed in the operation to seize Ledezma–“fewer soldiers [were sent] to kill Osama bin Laden,” the paper wryly observed.

As Maduro turns to brute force to silence his adversaries, the differences between his form of rule and that of Chavez have become all the more evident. Chavez, of course, was a tyrant, equally given to the kinds of paranoid rants that have now become Maduro’s hallmark. But Chavez was smarter, too: if, with one hand, he slung his opponents in jail, with the other, he successfully persuaded vast numbers of Venezuelans that chavismo would deliver them from poverty, by instituting social programs in poor neighborhoods in housing, education, and similar fields.

Chavez also had one other advantage: a decade of high oil prices that allowed him to both finance these social missions and provide essentially free oil to Venezuela’s foreign allies, most notably the Cubans, who received at least $7 billion-worth of Venezuelan oil gratis every year. Sitting on the world’s largest reserves of oil, a prudent Venezuelan government could have turned the country into the region’s powerhouse. Instead, those revenues were squandered, first by Chavez and then by Maduro. Now, with oil prices below $60 a barrel, what should have been the motor of Venezuela’s economic development–oil, recall, accounts for 95 percent of the country’s GDP–has become a restraint. As for PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, its debt over the last six years has grown by a staggering 187.5 percent to $46 bn.

As a result, Maduro’s personal ratings have crashed to an all-time low. On his watch, inflation has risen by 68 percent, further complicated by an infernally byzantine foreign-exchange system that contains no less than four different rates: those government cronies who are, in the words of dissident blogger Daniel Duquenal, “well connected,” can buy dollars at a rate of 6.3 Venezuelan Bolivars, and then sell them for around 180 Bolivars. (This last number, says Duquenal, is the black market rate and is therefore “the one closest to the truth.”)

Thus do the ostensible socialists running Venezuela reveal themselves as little more than mafiosos in charge of a country. In the coming months, we are certain to learn a great deal more about the mechanisms of corruption in Venezuela, now that a senior Venezuelan army officer, Leamsy Salazar, has defected to the United States, carrying with him the inside story of the connection between Diosdado Cabello, the powerful speaker of the National Assembly, and the military-controlled narcotics cartels that have become the main transporters of cocaine into the U.S. and Europe.

With Venezuela presently resting upon the twin pillars of corruption and political repression, there can no longer be any doubt that chavismo has definitively failed. Even if the government somehow manages to service its debt in 2015, as a recent Barclays Bank analysis argued, its obligations in 2016 will only be met if there is a recovery in oil prices. Hence, the fundamental question: how long before Maduro and his regime are consigned to the trash can of history?

A recent poll by Datanalisis, a Venezuelan company, predicts a healthy victory for the opposition in National Assembly elections tentatively scheduled for later this year: 59.6 percent for the MUD coalition, as against just 22.5 percent for Maduro’s ruling socialists. These figures, along with the traditionally cautious approach of the Venezuelan opposition to street demonstrations, suggest that the anti-chavista bloc still regards the ballot box as the primary avenue for political change.

Yet it would be foolhardy to believe that these elections will definitely take place. As ordinary Venezuelans continue to suffer from shortages of basic goods, and as the country’s infrastructure crumbles, Maduro may decide that a state of emergency is his last, best, and only option. Should that turn out to be the case, the mass bloodbath that has been dodged thus far will no longer be avoidable.

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