Events in Venezuela, where demonstrations threaten President Nicolas Maduro’s government, are raising tough questions about the country’s future.
The first demonstrators, who took to the streets in Caracas, the capital, a few weeks ago, were students. Their complaints were about the sad state of education but were also rooted in widespread grievances among the nation’s 30 million people. These include 56 percent inflation, shortages of goods, high crime, frequent power cuts in an energy-rich country and the Maduro government’s intolerance of opposition.
Now, like Ukraine, Venezuela is facing barricades in the streets, large crowds of demonstrators and anti-government actions in other cities, especially in San Cristobal in the west. At least 13 have died in conflicts between protesters and the Venezuelan National Guard.
Mr. Maduro was elected president last year after the death of President Hugo Chavez, a socialist, populist, rabble-rousing former military officer who ran the country for 15 years and established some of his popularity on vocal anti-Americanism. Mr. Maduro, a former bus driver, was expected to have trouble governing, having been elected primarily on the basis of his loyalty to Mr. Chavez.
Mr. Maduro is not reacting well to the turmoil; he has locked up opposition figures, used force against demonstrators and called the protests a “fascist coup d’etat against the revolution” instead of trying to respond to the public’s complaints. It may well be that the opposition, like that in Ukraine, will force Mr. Maduro’s flight or resignation.
The Obama administration is watching closely, given that Venezuela is one of America’s top foreign sources of petroleum. Its neighbors, particularly Colombia and Brazil, are concerned that the unrest might spread across their borders. Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and even Argentina and Syria, beneficiaries of cut-rate oil from Venezuela, are concerned that the tap might be shut off.
The darkest question for Venezuela is what would it mean for democracy if Mr. Maduro, another elected but ham-fisted president, following on the heels of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, were toppled by crowd action?