- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2017

As American public attention has been focusing on terror attacks in Paris, the crisis in Syria and the nuclear-armed lunatic running North Korea, Venezuela to our south is about to explode into violence and civil war with incalculable consequences in our own hemisphere. The “Bolivarian Revolution” that began with the coming to power of Hugo Chavez in 1999 and continues under his successor Nicolas Maduro has destroyed the nation’s economy and its democratic institutions.

Last week a dozen or more protesters died as hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities demanding elections, food and medicine. Thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing to neighboring countries, creating a refugee crisis that threatens to tax the ability of neighboring governments to provide services not only to the refugees but to their own citizens. Venezuela is already among the world’s most violence-prone nations with rampant crime and a homicide rate almost 20 times that of the United States. It is estimated that government officials and their cronies have looted as much as $11 billion from the state-owned oil company alone, and Venezuela is today ranked by Transparency International as having the 10th most-corrupt government on earth.

A recent International Monetary Fund report suggests that the nation’s unemployment rate of 25 percent can be expected to increase as the economy shrunk by a full 18 percent in just the last year; inflation this year is expected to reach 720 percent and could go to 2,000 percent next year.

Mr. Maduro and his henchman blame the nation’s problems on capitalism and the United States, but the people of Venezuela beg to differ. A recent poll shows that he has a “negative” rating among his own people exceeding 70 percent, which explains why he is methodically jailing his opponents and doing all he can to avoid anything resembling a free election.

The swift slide toward totalitarianism in Venezuela has been condemned by the Organization of American States, the United States has slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s vice president for drug trafficking, and President Trump has even tweeted a demand that Mr. Maduro release his main opponent from prison.

The immediate crisis stems not just from the economic collapse or the seizure of the General Motors facility that upset some Americans, but from public outrage at Mr. Maduro’s less-than-subtle dismantling of the nation’s democratic institutions. When his opposition won supermajority control of the nation’s legislature, he had a Supreme Court he controls take over the legislative process, ban his chief political opponent from running for office for 15 years and block the opposition’s effort to force a recall election, even though supporters had collected 10 times the number of signatures required.

Mr. Maduro believes like the late Mao Zedong that elections are for fools and that true political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. After spending several years confiscating firearms from his fellow citizens, he is now promising to rearm those loyal to him so they can help him remain in power. Last week, Mr. Maduro pledged to arm 100,000 of his loyalist supporters so they can help save his revolution and warned those who oppose him that he foresees deploying as many as a million armed supporters against his adversaries if that proves necessary.

In an earlier era, Germany’s Nazis came to power with assistance of armed thugs known as “Brown Shirts” who threatened, attacked and often killed political adversaries who dared question Adolf Hitler’s views. When Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999, he created and fostered a similar organization known as the “National Bolivarian Militia” made up of loyalist civilian volunteers willing to do his bidding. These militiamen have ties both to the government and to groups of thugs known as “Colectivos” as well as murderous motorcycle gangs described by the nation’s vice president as the “iron knights” of the Bolivarian revolution.

Mr. Maduro’s modern Brown Shirts have attacked synagogues, driven thousands of Jews to flee the country and are now targeting Catholic churches deemed disloyal to their maximum leader. They spend most of their time, however, harassing journalists less than fully committed to the Bolivarian Revolution and are deployed en masse against pro-democracy demonstrators who dare to take to the streets to protest the nation’s slide down the slippery slope to totalitarianism.

This is not likely to end well as Mr. Maduro prepares for war with his own people, but he shouldn’t worry too much, as Cuba’s foreign minister last week warned Mr. Maduro’s real and imagined enemies that his country will stand by its Venezuelan comrade.

• David A. Keene is editor at large at The Washington Times.

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