- - Sunday, October 1, 2017

BUENOS AIRES — When Venezuela was awash amid seemingly endless oil dollars, backers of President Hugo Chavez relished the populist strongman’s derisions of what he called the U.S. “empire” and dismissed President George W. Bush as “the devil” and President Obama as “a clown.”

But a decade later, as Venezuelans struggle to survive amid food and drug shortages, they are largely turning a deaf ear to President Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez’s handpicked successor who stubbornly clings to the strategy of blaming the “imperialist Yankees” in Washington for all of the country’s problems.

So when President Trump last month slammed Mr. Maduro as the head of a “socialist dictatorship” and later included high-ranking government officials in his travel ban, the Venezuelan opposition — far from fearing new fuel for the regime’s rhetoric — welcomed the pressure.

“The idea that Trump is helping Maduro’s discourse fails to persuade me,” prominent opposition lawmaker Jose Guerra told The Washington Times. “It’s very attractive, ‘anti-imperialism’ and the like. But in today’s Venezuela, I don’t see it hitting its target.”

Such doubts, of course, were lost on Mr. Maduro. Having dubbed Mr. Trump “the new Hitler,” the Venezuelan president doubled down Tuesday on his critique.

“You saw the measures Donald Trump announced restricting all people of Venezuela from entry to the United States [and] calling the people of Venezuela ‘terrorists,’” he said. “And since the people of Venezuela are terrorists, they do not qualify for U.S. visas, barring exceptions.”

Mr. Maduro’s rhetoric, observers noted, was a classic example of vilification outweighing facts. Mr. Trump did not refer to Venezuelans as “terrorists,” and his travel restrictions singled out individuals and did not target the Venezuelan people at large.

Inaccuracies aside, the populist leader still has an, albeit small, audience, said Juan-Carlos Molleda, a University of Oregon dean who teaches public relations and has written about the propaganda machine in his native Venezuela.

“There is a core — a group of Venezuelans that are still hard-core supporters of the government, and they do believe everything the government says,” Mr. Molleda said. “But [their] number is shrinking significantly.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Molleda said, common Venezuelans’ struggles are so overwhelming that convincing anyone that the culprits are thousands of miles away is a high bar.

Mr. Maduro and his allies “keep on repeating the same language over and over again [and] always want to create stories [about] how the U.S. government is interfering,” he said. “But if you have extreme situations — if people’s priority is mainly to survive, they have [little] effect.”

While most Venezuelans’ trust in Mr. Maduro’s words are shattered, extreme economic hardship helps maintain the patronage relationships that have long kept him in power, said Yorelis Acosta de Oliveira, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

“Misery makes [domination] easier, so much so that even now, even though there is no money, they still threaten the poorest of the poor with taking away their benefits,” Ms. Acosta de Oliveira said. “In Chavez’s time, they gave you condos, laundry machines, refrigerators; now, they hand out little bags of food [with a few pounds] of flour.”

‘Military option’

That striking downward spiral means that while Mr. Trump’s tough talk could have done more harm than good a few years ago, the calculus has changed, Mr. Molleda said.

“In the past, I [would have said] I disagree with [Mr. Trump‘s] rhetoric, I disagree with this way to oppose a regime [because] this is giving fuel to the regime” he said. “But the situation in Venezuela has gotten to a point in which I think it’s better than nothing.”

Leading opposition figures, whom Mr. Maduro often characterizes as American puppets, continue to walk a tightrope when they weigh in on Mr. Trump’s comments and actions — especially since the U.S. president has not ruled out a “military option” to diffuse the crisis.

“We’re all over the world, and we have troops all over the world — in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering and dying,” Mr. Trump said in August.

But “[U.S.] Marines disembarking here, that doesn’t seem advisable to me, nor do I believe that it will happen or should happen,” Mr. Guerra said. “A military intervention would never have any support. What is viable is to apply pressure diplomatically and through negotiations, which is what the world is doing now.”

Still, after Mr. Maduro’s violent crackdown of months of street protests and the fraud-ridden election of an all-powerful Constitutional Assembly, his critics are finding it increasingly difficult to explain how their envisioned “domestic” solution might come about.

Mr. Guerra pins his hopes on long-delayed regional elections set for Oct. 15 and insisted that opposition observers can counter the partiality of the Maduro-controlled National Electoral Council.

“The problem is, if you don’t go down the electoral route, what route do you have left?” he said. “We found out in 130 days of fighting, with 140 deaths, that it’s not going to work. We have to go down the electoral route, with all its disadvantages.”

A resounding victory in the gubernatorial races might even pave the way to Mr. Maduro’s ouster next year, Mr. Guerra said.

“If we win clear majorities, the political map changes,” he said. “It will force them to allow presidential elections next year [and] give us an enormous possibility of winning.”

Mr. Maduro has already announced that his United Socialist Party of Venezuela would triumph in all 23 states.

Facing continued criticism over his government’s refusal for months to hold the constitutionally required vote, he knew just whom to blame: Foreign news agencies, he said on Monday, had conspired to make the elections “invisible.”

But now, “nothing and nobody will stop us,” the president added on Twitter. “On Oct. 15, we will have elections in Venezuela.”

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