- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2015

Trailing in the polls and saddled with a weak economy, the leftist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will not be surrendering power gracefully as the country prepares for critical parliamentary in December, analysts warned Thursday.

Following the conviction for inciting violence and the 14-year sentence handed down to opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez late last week — a verdict slammed by the Obama administration and human rights groups, Mr. Maduro will likely try to sabotage the opposition and avoid the first electoral defeat for the left since the late populist President Hugo Chavez came to power 16 years ago, according to Miriam Kornblith, director for Latin American and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Among the tools at Mr. Maduro’s disposal, she said: a “salami” tactic to slice away at opposition support through changing voting rules, disqualifying candidates and manipulating the state-controlled electoral council; an increase in subsidies for food and appliances such as washing machines; and stoking nationalism by increasing tensions along the border with neighboring Colombia.

“There was a clear collusion among different branches [of the government] to create an atmosphere of the limitation of rights,” Ms. Kornblith said.

The government has been rocked by collapsing world oil prices, undercutting the key revenue source that financed its populist economic policies. But despite a lead of 20 percent or more in recent polls, Venezuela’s opposition parties have historically proven unable to unite under a common banner to challenge Mr. Maduro’s government.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, said the weakness of the case against Mr. Lopez showed the lengths the government is prepared to go retain power.

“The case of Leopoldo Lopez is essentially a case of political persecution,” he said.

Mr. Vivanco also noted the government has a firm grasp on the judiciary, where 62 percent of the nation’s judges have been appointed by Mr. Maduro, and many of the judges serve on a provisional basis and can be fired in a day without further notice.

“Judges in Venezuela act like soldiers following superiors’ orders,” Mr. Vivanco said.

The Maduro government insists Mr. Lopez was trying to undermine the government and has justified a security crackdown as a response to rising crime rates and what the government says is increased lawlessness and aggression along the porous border with Colombia. Mr. Maduro has claimed he has been the target of at least a dozen assassination attempts attempting to overturn the achievements of the Chavista revolution.

Opposition critics have openly feared the government will cancel the December 6 vote, although Mr. Maduro has vowed to hold the vote.

Panelists at Thursday’s session, sponsored by the Council of the Americas, said the political uncertainty poses a challenge for the Obama administration, in a country where the U.S. has often been the government’s favorite scapegoat in justifying its economic and security moves.

Santiago A. Canton, executive director of RFK Partners for Human Rights, said pressure for political reform in Venezuela should come from countries such as Cuba and Argentina, not from Washington.

“It’s sometimes better if the U.S. stays silent,” Mr. Canton said.

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