- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2016

The Venezuelan government is using “intimidation or violence” to silence critics of its failure to address spiraling food and medical shortages, Human Rights Watch said Monday — a day after the socialist nation’s parliament vowed to begin impeachment proceedings against President Nicolas Maduro.

The New York-based rights group pointed to dozens of cases in which Venezuelan citizens have been targeted by “government agents in response to public criticism or protests of the government’s handling of the [country’s] humanitarian crisis.”

“Doctors and nurses reported being threatened with reprisals, including firing, after they spoke out publicly about the scarcity of medicines, medical supplies, and poor infrastructure in the hospitals where they worked,” Human Rights Watch said in a 78-page report.

The Maduro government has “seemed more vigorous in denying the existence of a humanitarian crisis than in working to resolve it,” the organization’s America’s director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, said in a statement.

The harsh assessment came amid a fresh round of unrest among lawmakers in Venezuela. Political friction has burned hot in Caracas since the 2014 plunge in global oil prices crashed the nation’s economy, and the administration of President Maduro — the hand-picked successor to the late socialist Hugo Chavez — began jailing key opposition figures.

Where Mr. Chavez once drew praise from the world’s leftist elite for using the previously high price of global crude to underwrite a socialist revolution in Venezuela, Mr. Maduro is seen to have clung to power as the nation slid toward failed statehood over the past two years.

The Venezuelan president made another kind of headlines Monday, however, with a surprise visit to the Vatican, where he met with Pope Francis. Reuters reported that the Pope, a native Argentinian, urged the embattled Venezuelan leader to alleviate people’s suffering and negotiate with the opposition to solve his country’s crisis.

The Vatican visit came after a chaotic day in Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly Sunday. During a raucous session that was briefly interrupted when Maduro administration supporters stormed into the assembly’s chamber, several opposition lawmakers vowed to begin putting Mr. Maduro on trial for violating democracy.

Their promise came days after the nation’s Supreme Court blocked an opposition campaign to hold a nationwide referendum to recall Mr. Maduro — a ruling that drew condemnation from the Obama administration and the Organization of American States.

Opposition lawmakers claim the court acted as it did because it’s stacked with Maduro backers. The National Assembly, the opposition says, is now in open rebellion, with a majority of its members voting Sunday night that the court’s decision constituted a coup with government participation.

Ruling-party officials, meanwhile, say it’s the opposition that’s engaged in fraud and claim Mr. Maduro’s critics are trying to use the National Assembly to overthrow the president and gain control of the nation’s vast crude oil reserves — arguably the largest in the world.

Amid that backdrop, the humanitarian crisis has only grown. Infant and maternal mortality rates have skyrocketed, according to Monday’s Human Rights Watch report, which cited “medical shortages and unhygienic conditions in hospital delivery wards [as] important contributing factors.”

“An August 2016 survey by a network of more than 200 doctors found that 76 percent of the public hospitals where they worked lacked the basic medicines,” the report said.

The targeting of critics, it said, has also included citizens expressing anger over extreme shortages of everything from bread, sugar, fruit and meat in the nation’s grocery stores. “Ordinary Venezuelans reported being arrested during street protests over food scarcity — some organized and some spontaneous — and being subject to beatings and other mistreatment while in detention,” the report said.

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