Just shy of one year since the death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, the movement he created is floundering. In recent days, massive demonstrations have rocked the government of Chavez's hapless successor Nicolas Maduro.
What began as student protests against rampant street crime has morphed into widespread mobilizations against the shortages of basic goods, out-of-control inflation, electricity blackouts, political polarization and, finally, the systematic elimination of political space to voice dissent.
While there is no question that he was bequeathed a dysfunctional economy and political system, Mr. Maduro, unlike Chavez, lacks the deft political skills to defuse crises before they became critical. Instead, his crude authoritarian rule has only worsened the economic situation, and in recent days, his heavy-handed reaction to the protests has only exacerbated the crisis to a degree that it is difficult to see how he will be able to return to the status quo ante.
During two weeks of protests in several cities, more than a dozen Venezuelans have been shot to death, many more have been wounded, and even more jailed. Leading opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has been imprisoned on a military base under the preposterous charge of training "gangs of youth" to lead a coup against the government. Mr. Maduro has further fanned the flames of confrontation by referring to the students as "fascist vandals" and threatened to release "all of the military force of the country" into opposition strongholds.
Mr. Maduro has also tried to deflect blame from his feckless government by absurdly accusing the Obama administration of spurring on the demonstrations. While there are plenty of reasons to criticize U.S. policy, this is not one of them, as is evident to anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills. But they is not Mr. Maduro's audience. His rhetoric serves as a dog whistle to the government's most violent, maladjusted followers to turn out into the streets in defense of the government, looking for blood.
Indeed, the biggest threat to the safety of Venezuelans is not the military, who are unlikely to mobilize against unarmed civilians. The biggest danger is the armed paramilitary gangs — imported from Cuba and trained in the ways of the Iranian Basij — who operate outside official channels and shoot first without bothering to ask questions later. Indeed, the Internet has been flooded with videos of these easily identifiable operatives — black-clad, riding motorcycles — shooting at or otherwise assaulting protesters.
Mr. Maduro has unconvincingly tried to disassociate his government from the gangs, since one of his ministers gloated over Twitter that the opposition is scared of the so-called "colectivos," calling them a "fundamental pillar in the defense of the homeland."
The wild card in Venezuela today is the military. Despite Mr. Maduro's bombast about sending in the tanks, many believe that any order to fire on civilians may well be his last. The fact is he has been unable to consolidate control over the armed forces over the past year and there is discontent within the ranks. A nationalist wing has always resented the presence of Cuban advisers throughout the government, which has only become more pervasive under Mr. Maduro. Widespread images of poorly trained national guardsmen and civilian thugs shooting, beating and detaining student protesters will likely only lead to their further alienation.
As of now, it is impossible to predict where the eruptions of popular discontent will take the country. Given that they began as somewhat spontaneous and were initially led by students, the question remains whether they can develop into a new, energized and united opposition movement that can achieve real results. It is important to recognize as well that to date, the demonstrations have been predominantly students and middle-class Venezuelans; it is when the protests extend into the poor, working-class barrios that make up the government's base of support that will truly signal the death knell for chavismo.
While the violence in Venezuela has yet to reach the levels of Ukraine, the stakes are no less important for the United States. Venezuela is in our neighborhood, is a country with a long democratic tradition and, until Chavez, strong ties to the United States. It is a major oil producer and it is strategically positioned at the top of South America astride major northbound drug-trafficking routes (Caracas is a mere three-hour flight from Miami.) Instability there negatively affects U.S. security and counter-narcotics policies in the hemisphere.
Unfortunately, U.S. policy toward Venezuela has been one of whistling past the graveyard. The Obama administration bent over backward, attempting to avoid confrontation with Chavez and his successors, and has continued to pretend that a perfectly normal relationship was possible between Washington and Caracas, even as conditions continued to deteriorate. Clearly, the administration's reluctance to speak out on matters of principle only emboldened the chavistas to further crackdown on dissent and strengthen associations with such U.S. adversaries as Iran and Cuba.
No one should be surprised by the chaotic images coming from Venezuela today; it was a tragedy foretold. There is one salutary result of the violence in recent days: It is that it should dispel once and for all the confusion in some Washington quarters as to who are the good guys in Venezuela worthy of U.S. support and who are the bad guys deserving sanction.
Jose R. Cardenas is a former acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration and is an associate with Vision Americas.