Maduro Flails as Venezuela Ails

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro looks to be losing his grip on power. It’s been a long, slow slide, but on Wednesday, things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Two people were killed, 23 were injured, 25 arrested, and numerous buildings vandalized as radical anti-government protests continued in the capital city for a second week.

Maduro narrowly won an election last April after the death of former president Hugo Chavez, who publicly announced Maduro as his chosen successor before his death. After the election, Maduro’s main challenger, Henrique Capriles, accused Maduro of “stealing” the election and violent protests broke out, which Maduro accused the US of helping to foment.

Capriles has been a prominent leader of the opposition all along, but has condemned the current violence saying that “the solution has to be built properly… given what Venezuela is experiencing, and the chaos we are living in, we can’t be promoting more chaos.”

Chaos is a good description of the situation. The demonstrators claim that they are protesting “insecurity,” yet they are the ones burning police cars and vandalizing property. Maduro accuses his opponents of waging an “economic war,” but it was his administration that arrested 100 “capitalist parasites” and sent in the army to enforce price controls he ordered in November.

Maduro has never had the charisma or political acumen of his predecessor – and the little Chavez birds and faces in the subway apparently haven’t imparted any good advice. Maduro seems like a bad imitation of Chavez, much closer to the caricature the media created of the late leader than the reality.

Still, Venezuela’s problems are real. The country continues to suffer from food and electricity shortages as well as hyperinflation. Maduro blames collusion between the United States and right-wingers like Capriles attempting to sabotage the socialist movement. In actual fact, he should point out that the shortages are more likely explained by the dramatic decline in poverty and concomitant rise in consumption Chavez’s policies brought on. The inflation, too, can be explained by the high costs of government social programs, funded largely by oil revenues.

While the goals of Chavez and Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) are laudable – reducing poverty, shifting power away from traditional elites – the party has struggled with formulating a response to the adverse side-effects of their policies. The PSUV remains broadly popular, largely holding on to power in recent municipal elections, but the opposition made some important gains.

Whether or not Venezuela’s problems are the result of a capitalist conspiracy supported by nefarious elements within the US government is pretty much irrelevant. If he cares about his own political future and that of his party, Maduro needs to find a way to calm the protesters and get the economy on a better track.

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