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Published: Wednesday, 2/26/2014


Venezuela’s strife

Government headed by a democratically elected but autocratic president risks being toppled by crowd action

Maduro Maduro

In Venezuela, as in Ukraine, a government headed by a democratically elected but autocratic president risks being toppled by crowd action.

The first demonstrators against President Nicolas Maduro occupied streets in Caracas, the capital, a few weeks ago. They were students complaining about the sad state of Venezuelan education.

Since then, protesters have expressed more widespread grievances: An inflation rate of 56 percent, shortages of essential goods, high crime, frequent power cuts in an energy-rich country, and the government’s intolerance of dissent.

Now, as in Ukraine, Venezuela has barricades in the streets and large crowds of demonstrators and anti-government actions in other cities, especially San Cristobal. At least 13 people have died in conflicts between protesters and the Venezuelan national guard.

Mr. Maduro was elected president last year after the death of Hugo Chavez, a socialist, populist, rabble-rousing former military officer who ran the country for 15 years and established some of his popularity through vocal anti-Americanism. Mr. Maduro, a former bus driver, was expected to have trouble governing because he was elected primarily on the basis of his loyalty to Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Maduro is not reacting well to the turmoil. He has jailed opponents, used force against demonstrators, and called the protests an attempted “fascist coup d’etat against the revolution,” instead of trying to respond to Venezuelans’ complaints. The opposition, like that in Ukraine, may force the president’s flight or ouster.

The Obama Administration is watching closely because Venezuela is one of America’s top foreign sources of petroleum. The country’s neighbors, particularly Colombia and Brazil, are worried the unrest might spread across their borders. Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and even Argentina and Syria, all beneficiaries of cut-rate oil from Venezuela, are concerned the tap might be shut off.

During his tenure, President Chavez faced opposition, often bitter, but knew how to keep the lid on. Mr. Maduro does not seem to be as adept, and that could cost him his job.

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