Venezuela is in a death spiral that could produce a crisis for the United States. Economic collapse, incompetent leadership and Cuban meddling may provoke a showdown among well-armed chavista rivals, with civilians caught in the crossfire. US diplomats, who’ve spent years ignoring or minimizing threats emanating from Venezuela, must act urgently to prevent a Syria scenario on our doorstep.
The late dictator Hugo Chávez left behind a mess: His divisive, illegitimate regime polarized society and devastated the economy. Inflation is running at 50 percent, while the vital oil sector is faltering. The bloated, bankrupt state can’t sustain the social spending that kept the peace; the nation already faces food shortages, power outages and rampant crime.
Chávez’s hapless successor, Nicolás Maduro, won disputed elections in April in what even he called a “Pyrrhic victory.” His mismanagement since has only hastened the country’s decline — for example, dealing with toilet-paper shortages by confiscating paper companies.
Maduro has resorted to accusing the Obama White House of plotting the collapse of the Venezuelan economy. He’s also created a “vice ministry of supreme social happiness” in an Orwellian gesture to tamp down widespread social anxiety. He even moved up Christmas celebrations up in advance of the Dec. 8 local elections.
Last week, Maduro publicly ordered retailers to lower prices on consumer goods. Security forces arrested dozens of shopkeepers and stood by as mobs emptied store shelves. Good luck seeing those shelves restocked. As he further tightens economic controls, Venezuelans will have to settle for what the government provides. Their only other choices: Flee the country, turn to crime — or oppose the regime.
Maduro is most worried about the last. He recently ordered the detention of several civic leaders who’d been mobilizing protest rallies. Regime sources say that he may even nix the upcoming elections and jail well-known opposition politicians.
Most blame these draconian measures on Maduro’s Cuban handlers, the puppeteers behind his rise to power. The destitute Castro regime’s survival depends on Venezuelan oil, so it means to keep Maduro in power by repressing popular unrest and ferreting out dissent — including within the regime.
By pushing Maduro to purge powerful chavistas — many with ties to the military — who disapprove of Havana’s heavy hand, the Cubans have likely overreached. This crackdown has stoked tension within the military between those aligned with Maduro and nationalists who’ve never been comfortable in a Cuban harness.
The regime has very little room to maneuver. Virtually every Venezuelan is infuriated by the daily fight for survival. The anti-chavistas are fed up with the harassment by an illegitimate and incompetent one-party state. All sides in the military are busy weighing their options.
Any act of repression, street brawl, electoral fraud or corruption scandal could unleash all the fury built up over the regime’s 15 years. Tragically, the sight of military units squaring off in the streets of Caracas is not a distant memory.
The United States imports about half the Venezuelan petroleum that it did when Chávez was elected in 1998, but that’s still 9 percent of our foreign oil purchases. Plus, an implosion of Venezuela’s economy — or, God forbid, prolonged civil warfare — will roil the international oil markets and destabilize the region when the US economy is sputtering.
What’s worse, in the last decade, Venezuela has become a narco-state, with dozens of senior officials and state-run enterprises complicit in the lucrative cocaine trade. The regime also is an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, which may find their own ways to exploit chaos in Venezuela.
Geography makes the bloodbath in Syria all but invisible to Americans, but Venezuela is a three-hour flight from Miami and No. 3 in the world in social networking. The US public will see photos and videos of innocent demonstrators mowed down in the street. Moreover, in the Americas, the United States will be expected to lead.
The Obama administration must work with regional partners to respond to the brewing crisis. It should invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter as a step toward restoring democratic governance, and to warn Maduro and military leaders that they’ll be held responsible for violence against citizens.
If the administration fails to confront these events decisively, Congress should demand action and make clear to the president that leading from behind is not an option.