- - Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela bears a marked resemblance to the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, right down to the mustache. With a collapsing economy that has soured his countrymen on his ruinous economic policies, Mr. Maduro is beginning to resemble Saddam in a more ominous way as well.

He is systematically jailing more and more of his opponents on trumped-up charges of plotting an “endless coup” against his government. Such attempts, he says, tipping his hat to the villain in the familiar Latin American imagination, are “supported and promoted from the north.” Intelligence agents last week burst into the office of Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of the capital Caracas and a leading opposition figure, and arrested him on vague “conspiracy” charges.

The mayor, 59, was taken to the Ramo Verde military jail where another opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, marked a year of incarceration on Feb. 18. The charges of arson, terrorism and homicide against Mr. Lopez, 43, have been denounced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“If this is what they do with mayor of the capital city,” Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost an April 2013 presidential election to Mr. Maduro, told a rally held in Mr. Ledezma’s defense, “how will they treat you, a citizen, forcing their way into your business, shop or house to take you away by force?”

Another opposition-party mayor says 33 of his peers have been caught in similar grief. Forty-three Venezuelans were killed last year. Mr. Maduro is beginning to resemble Fidel and Raul Castro, his Cuban patrons.

Fortunately for the opposition, Mr. Maduro has none of the oily charisma of the late Hugo Chavez, his presidential predecessor and role model, whose redistributionist policies he has continued. The snake oil no longer sells. He has run afoul of the wisdom in Margaret Thatcher’s famous observation that “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

Once awash in expensive oil, Venezuela has gone from breadbasket to basket case. With the collapse of oil prices on world markets, Mr. Maduro no longer has the ready cash to lavish on social programs and other foolish schemes to buy support from favored constituencies, or to subsidize the Castro regime by selling Cuba deeply discounted oil.

Price controls, instituted by Chavez and adopted by Mr. Maduro, have led to shortages of basic necessities, such as milk, butter, cheese, flour, cooking oil, coffee, toilet paper, soap and diapers. The inflation rate has soared to 68 percent, and the Venezuelan bolivar was effectively devalued by 70 percent last week.

A onetime bus driver and trade union leader, Mr. Maduro has risen, in Peter Principle fashion, to the level of his incompetence. Events have exposed him as merely a bumbling community organizer with a salsa flavor. He has been a disaster for Venezuela.

The Obama administration has decried the Maduro government, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that “We are perplexed and concerned about what is happening in Venezuela.” He demanded that the Venezuelan government free its political prisoners and to abandon the “old script” of blaming Washington for imaginary coup attempts. So far nobody is listening. The only sound in the land are the cries of hungry children.

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