As U.S. policymakers fret about Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and North Korea, far too little attention is being paid to the powder keg to the south of us that may be about to blow. Once-prosperous Venezuela has been coming apart for years, but the roundly condemned Constituent Assembly election engineered by presidential strongman Nicolas Maduro lit the fuse that could ignite a civil war in his country. With a Sunday attack by uniformed insurgents on a military base, the internecine battle may have already begun.
Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, was a dedicated socialist who hated the United States and laid the foundations on which Mr. Maduro has built, but he was a lot smarter than his successor. If Chavez was the Venezuelan revolution’s Lenin, Mr. Maduro is its Stalin. From the day he took office, he’s targeted his opponents for annihilation, built an internal private secret police force and moved headlong to emulate what the Castro brothers did in and to Cuba.
He’s blamed everything that’s gone wrong on an evil alliance of capitalist businessmen and the imperialist United States while the once-booming Venezuelan economy has collapsed around him. His problems were made worse by the drop in oil prices, but the command economy he built has driven business and investment out of his now-impoverished nation. Inflation is projected by the International Monetary Fund to reach 700 percent this year, and neighboring countries are working to process the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the country.
The Constituent Assembly elected in the fake referendum he engineered consists of loyalists who, like their leaders, have vowed to trash the nation’s constitutional safeguards and give Mr. Maduro the power to crush his opponents. It was condemned by dozens of nations, including the United States and virtually every human rights organization one can name. And it was boycotted by his opponents and, according to polls taken in the weeks leading up to it, by something like 80 percent of the Venezuelan public.
Undeterred, Mr. Maduro declared the results a “democratic” endorsement of his schemes and within hours, two of his major political opponents were picked up and jailed. More arrests have followed and the pace can be expected to pick up once the assembly, which was seated last Friday, begins to formally eliminate opposition protection as the Maduro regime completes the task of dismantling a democracy and building a totalitarian state. The U.S. has imposed “sanctions” on Mr. Maduro personally and is threatening to sanction every member of his assembly. Sanctions didn’t stop Fidel in the ‘60s and have failed to dissuade various despots on which we have imposed them in recent years. They aren’t likely to have much impact on the Maduro regime.
Before the election, President Trump threatened “strong and swift” economic action if Mr. Maduro went forward. But since then, there has been little follow-through, and the Miami Herald has reported that State Department officials are muddling the message by expressing “a willingness to dialogue.”
At least the president has an adviser who follows and knows just what’s going on in Venezuela. His new chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, has served as head of the Southern Command, knows many of the region’s political and military leaders, and knows exactly what Mr. Maduro is and how he has proceeded to destroy his country with help from his buddies in Havana.
The rampant inflation that has plagued Venezuela since Mr. Maduro ordered the printing presses to crank out more and more Bolivars has made it impossible to import much of anything from abroad. Medicine isn’t available except on the black market at prices virtually no one can afford. City dwellers, who a few years ago, were dining at first-rate restaurants can now be found digging through the garbage behind those very restaurants looking for discarded food to stave off starvation. No one is safe on the streets of Venezuelan cities, which are now among the most dangerous on earth.
In recent years, the Maduro regime has disarmed the Venezuelan citizenry, imposing some of the strictest gun control laws anywhere. Earlier this year, it turned over the very guns confiscated to Maduro loyalist supporters, who are even now using them to kill or intimidate Venezuelans who have publicly demonstrated their opposition.
It’s hard to imagine the economy collapsing even further, but in October the regime is going to have to decide what to do about some $3.4 billion in international loan repayments due to creditors who are going to want to be paid in dollars, not worthless Bolivars. The loans were made to the state-run oil company and if Mr. Maduro defaults, his country will end up even more isolated than it is today.
As things worsen, open civil war looms just over the horizon — a civil war that could lead not just to tens of thousands of dead, but a wave of refugees the likes of which we have not seen in this hemisphere.
• David A. Keene is editor at large at The Washington Times.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.