Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Behind the Turmoil in Venezuela

O'Grady: Behind the Turmoil in Venezuela
Cuba is worried about losing 100,000 barrels of oil per day if its man
in Caracas falls.
Feb. 23, 2014 6:47 p.m. ET

The bloodshed in Caracas over the past 12 days brings to mind the 2009
Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, where President Obama greeted
Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez with a huge grin and a warm handshake. A
couple of months later the State Department attempted to force Honduras
to reinstall pro-Chávez president Manuel Zelaya, who had been deposed
for violating the constitution.

Brows were knitted throughout the Americas. Why did the U.S. president
favor the Venezuelan dictator, protégé of Fidel Castro, over Honduras,
which still had a rule of law, press freedom and pluralism?

Fast forward to last Wednesday, after four peaceful student-protesters
had been confirmed as having been killed by the government's armed
minions. Mr. Obama took notice, pronouncing the brutality
"unacceptable." That must have been comforting to hear amid the gun
shots and pummeling on the streets of Caracas.

That same night the government of Nicolás Maduro —Chávez's handpicked
successor—unleashed a wave of terror across the country. According to
Venezuelan blogs and Twitter posts, the National Guard and police went
on a tear, firing their weapons indiscriminately, beating civilians,
raiding suspected student hide-outs, destroying private property and
launching tear-gas canisters. Civilian militia on motor bikes added to
the mayhem. The reports came from Valencia, Mérida, San Cristóbal,
Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz and elsewhere, as well as the capital.

Venezuela has promised 100,000 barrels of oil per day to Cuba, and in
exchange Cuban intelligence runs the Venezuelan state security
apparatus. The Cubans clearly are worried about losing the oil if their
man in Caracas falls. Opposition leader Leopoldo López, who heads the
Popular Will political party, spent several years building a network of
young recruits around the country. Last week's unrest is a testament to
that organization, and it is why the 42-year-old Mr. López is now behind

In Ukraine, the European Union has pressured the government to reach a
compromise with the opposition. Venezuelans are getting no such help
from the neighbors. Only Colombia, Chile and Panama have objected to the
crackdown. The rest of the hemisphere doesn't have even a passing
interest in human rights when the violations come from the left. The
Organization of American States is supposed to defend civil liberties,
but since Chilean Socialist José Miguel Insulza took the OAS helm in
2005, it has earned a disgraceful record as a shill for Cuba.

Venezuelans seeking change face daunting odds. The crowds in the streets
of Caracas in recent days have not been significantly bigger than in
many prior-year protests, including 2002, when a march in Caracas almost
unseated Chávez.

This time the repression has been fierce. Besides injuries and death,
hundreds have been detained and it would not be surprising if many are
given long sentences. Mr. Maduro needs scapegoats for the violence he
unleashed. Iván Simonovis, the former head of the Caracas Metropolitan
Police, has been a political prisoner since 2004. Chávez made him take
the fall for the 17 people killed in the April 2002 uprising even though
video evidence points to chavista snipers. Photos of the once-fit
policeman, frail and gravely ill from the inhuman circumstances of his
long incarceration, are chilling.

Another problem is the division within the opposition. The governor of
the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles, represented a broad coalition
of anti-chavista parties when he ran for president in 2013. But when he
conceded to Mr. Maduro amid strong evidence that the election had been
stolen, Mr. López and other members of the opposition broke with
Capriles supporters.

Students have also been hamstrung by a communications blockade. The
government controls all Venezuelan television and radio airwaves. When
the violence broke out, it forced satellite providers to drop the
Colombian NTN channel. Internet service has been cut in many places.

Getting the very poor on board for a regime change is a challenge. Some
still see chavismo as their government, even if they have no love for
Mr. Maduro and suffer from high inflation. Others don't dare speak out,
for fear of losing state jobs or their lives. The barrios are terrorized
by the chavista militia.

Mr. Maduro says he will use every weapon to quell the unrest. On Friday
afternoon the son of a Venezuelan friend sent me photos from Caracas of
troops massing at the Francisco de Miranda air base in the middle of the
city. The Cuban-backed Venezuelan high command, Cuban intelligence (the
country is thick with agents) and plainclothes militia will play rough.

On the other hand, the government is bankrupt, and food and other
shortages will get worse. Mr. Maduro may pacify Caracas, but food is
harder to find in the interior of the country than in the capital. It is
there that the fires of rebellion, burning for the first time under
chavismo, might race out of control. Many army officers come from
lower-middle-class families, and it is not clear that they will stand by
and watch large numbers of civilians being slaughtered. Many resent the
Cuban occupation.

What comes next is hard to predict. But no one should underestimate
Cuba's comparative advantage: repression.

Write to O'Grady@wsj.com

Source: Mary O'Grady: Behind the Turmoil in Venezuela - WSJ.com -

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