In the words of Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, Nicolas Maduro's government is increasingly a “dictatorship whose economic policies and generalized corruption have terribly impoverished” Venezuela. A founding member of OPEC with extensive petroleum reserves, the once prosperous nation is plagued by shortages of goods, a stratospheric unemployment rate, and epidemic levels of crime, including an escalating crescendo of crimes committed by the state.
When students took to the streets in February 2014 over thirty of them were killed. How did the government respond? Were the security forces investigated? Were enforcement policies changed? Perhaps the government actually listened to the students' demands for free and fair elections? No. Instead the government responded to its own killing spree by arresting opposition leader and former mayor of Chacao Leopoldo López on the grounds that organizing protests calling on the government to step down amounted to a putsch. Maduro doesn't appear to understand the difference between a free and fair election and a coup d’état.
Like the queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Maduro's primary principal of jurisprudence is “sentence first, verdict afterwards.” While the Kafkaesque case inches towards trial, with hearings postponed, witnesses ruled inadmissible, and visitors from abroad, including former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana, former Bolivian president Jorge Quiroga, and former Spanish prime minister Felipe González, refused access, López is confined in the infamous Ramo Verde prison.
Not that Maduro has been idle. While the formality of a legal procedure to justify the ongoing incarceration of López has been far from his top priority, Maduro did manage to jail Daniel Ceballos, former mayor of San Cristobal, and this February he dispatched a platoon of heavily armed policemen to invade the peaceful city hall of Caracas, where they brutally detained opposition mayor Antonio Ledezma. Maduro has also turned his hand to the economy—currency restrictions, price controls, the jailing of shopkeepers for ``hoarding", and widespread firings of workers in the state run petroleum company for displaying sympathies with the political opposition have combined to create widespread shortages of goods, from staples such as milk, to vital medicines. Facing draconian currency restrictions a host of major airlines have canceled passenger service, and with few remaining engineers and technicians capable of managing its refineries the state run oil company has suffered a rash of accidents and fires. The general climate in the country is one of fear, with most individuals too terrified of its repressive policies to express any criticism of the Maduro regime, while they are too unstrung by chronic shortages and hardships to endorse it.
Amidst the continuing unraveling of society, the economy and the rule of law, Messrs. López and Ceballos showed that at least some Venezuelans do know how to lead. From the dismal confines of the maximum security jail cells in which they are being held, the plucky paragons of democracy initiated a hunger strike to demand the liberation of all the Venezuelan political prisoners, the end of the government's persecution, repression, and censorship, and that the government fix a date for the next parliamentary elections, with observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union.
While Maduro has encountered some support from other caciques, including Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Bolivia's Evo Morales, and Nicaragua's “comandante” Ortega, the hunger strike has brought much needed attention to Maduro's withdrawal of Venezuela from the free world. With his health failing Ceballos was compelled to end his strike after twenty days. But López persists, and earlier this month Felipe González, the former Socialist prime minister of Spain visited Venezuela to express his support, though as noted above, he was unable to visit López in prison. Maduro was slated to visit Rome, but anticipating that he would receive an earful from the pope on account of his miserable human rights record, Maduro announced that he had an ear infection and canceled his trip—no minor matter for the president of a heavily Catholic country. Across the political spectrum there is growing solidarity with the persecuted people of Venezuela, and with the goals of Leopoldo López’s hunger strike.
This week the Organization of American States meets in Washington, and the U.S. delegation is pressing the Venezuelans to set a date for parliamentary elections. They should press hard.
John Londregan, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, is the Ernesto Silva Bafalluy visiting scholar at the Universidad de Desarollo.