February 21, 2014

VENEZUELA: Venezuela Turns Ugly; As Shortages And Protests Grow, Maduro Follows The Cuban Model.

The Wall Street Journal
written by Staff
Sunday February 16, 2014

It's getting ugly in Venezuela. Three people were killed in anti-government protests on the streets of Caracas on Wednesday. The killers haven't been identified, but Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro is using the deaths to justify a government crackdown on growing civic unrest directed at his leadership and a deteriorating economy.

Mr. Maduro was Hugo Chรกvez's hand-picked successor, and one of Chรกvez's Cuban-influenced legacies was politicizing the armed forces and the police and developing an informal militia that still roams cities and towns on motorcycles to intimidate political opponents. Today, Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Chรกvez also strangled independent television and radio outlets. On Wednesday the government blocked the signal of NTN television based in Bogota, Colombia. The only independent media left are newspapers, but the central bank won't sell them the dollars they need to import newsprint and they too are trying to survive.

The Venezuelan economy is in a downward spiral. The central bank admits an annual inflation rate of 56%, though it's probably much higher, and there is a shortage of foreign exchange. The bank's "scarcity index" reports that 28% of basic food stuffs are unavailable. Hospitals are running out of medicines and supplies and can't get dollars to import more. Inventories of car batteries and spare parts are run down and cannot be replenished. Last week Toyota 7203.TO +2.08% and General Motors GM +1.33% announced they would shutter assembly plants indefinitely, because without dollars they can't import manufacturing components. An estimated 12,000 jobs are affected.

In November, using a simple majority in the national assembly, Mr. Maduro won the power to rule by decree for a year. Now his hand is getting heavier. On Wednesday he blasted the organizers of anti-government protests as "coup-plotters." He also announced a prohibition on street demonstrations, closing down the last public space for dissent. Arrest warrants went out for at least two Maduro adversaries.

The opposition has vowed it won't surrender its right to gather in public spaces. The big question now is whether all the armed forces would follow a Maduro order to move against a big anti-government protest. Some likely would. Venezuela is also thick with Cuban intelligence operatives who trained the armed and dangerous militia. They are now calling the shots in Caracas as much as Mr. Maduro is, and the latest unrest is becoming another excuse to increase repression.

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