by John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
UNITED NATIONS -Storm clouds are buffeting the coast of Venezuela, the once rich South American state which is sliding into economic chaos and combustable political confrontation.
Mass demonstrations have rocked the capital Caracas. As democratic opposition protesters con-front the riot police and paramilitary forces of the entrenched socialist dictatorship, the country of 31 million slips deeper into turmoil.
It did not have to be this way.
Once a fairly prosperous and middle class country, Venezuela challenged the paradigm of much of Latin America in the post-war period having a working democracy which was not jolted by periodic military coups d’etat. Nor was this the stereotypical “banana republic.” Anything but.
Yet the rise of the petroleum fueled and politically high octane presidency of Colonel Hugo Chavez starting in 1999 changed the political equation. A dozen years of left wing politics, nationalizations and increasing authoritarianism of the Bolivarian Revolution put Chavez’s Venezuela near the pinnacle of progressive Latin American regimes. President Chavez presented him-self as a buffoonish populist and regular critic of the USA. Having witnessed his antics during his UN visits, one could be assured of colorful rhetoric and a peculiar charm fitting of a Latin despot.
In a sense Venezuela’s oil boom was both a blessing and a curse. In the beginning petrodollars fueled the state and lavish social welfare programs for his United Socialist Party. Later petrodol-lars provided a massive political slush fund to support political solidarity with Castro’s Cuba, and a host of other Marxist states looking for the flow of Peso diplomacy. But the drop in global oil prices and the cost of socialist mismanagement by Hugo Chavez turned a once prosperous state into an economic basket case.
When Chavez died of cancer in 2013, his mantle fell to vice President Nicolas Maduro, a less talented demagogue, who’s since been swamped by falling oil prices, corruption, and inflation.
After Maduro’s left wing Supreme Court basically dissolved the National Assembly, which was controlled by the opposition, street demonstrations reignited. Once again, as many times during the Chavez years, especially in 2002, the middle class opposition rose up to challenge the Maduro government. Yet widening food and medicine shortages across Venezuela have swelled the ranks of the protesters including many of the poor proletariat who once supported the Chavismo movement.
The Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) issued a 75-page report accusing the Maduro government of violating human rights and democratic standards. The OAS Secretary General later warned, “In Venezuela, the rule of law does not exist even in appearance…The group of people who hold power in Venezuela has no right to inflict the harm and damage it is causing on the country and the hemisphere.”
Weeks ago the Caracas regime decided to quit the OAS, of which it was a founding member. Former congresswoman Maria Corina Machado stated that Maduro’s leaving the OAS “formalized Venezuela’s outlaw status.”
The human rights watchdog group Freedom House rates Venezuela’s political rights and civil liberties as “Not free” and scores its standing as lower than Zimbabwe! Venezuela is regarded as the “least free” country on the South American continent, a tragic turnaround from its historic standing. Political prisoners, media harassment/intimidation and human rights violations have become part of Venezuela’s new normal.
During a May Day rally speech, Maduro proudly proclaimed plans for a new constitution, one which will be written and framed by regime appointees who know what the Boss wants.
The armed forces, while constitutionally barred from politically meddling, may be biding their time. Nonetheless, the National Guard and the regime’s loyal People’s Militias keep Maduro in power in the short run albeit it to the backdrop of tear gas, and dozens of dead thus far.
Caracas is seething. While the opposition wants fresh elections and a release of political prisoners, the biggest threat to Maduro comes from weak petroleum prices on which 95 percent of the country’s exports depend. This combined with hyper-inflation, food shortages, and a health care crisis present a toxic mix to the regime.
The paradox facing the Trump Administration and many Latin American partners is how to de-fuse this tinderbox before it becomes a regional crisis. Preventive diplomacy is needed before the crisis explodes.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.