Caracas suffered another big power outage on Tuesday. The blackout shut down a hospital and a metro line and left large swaths of the Venezuelan capital without juice for much of the day.
One official response could be an upgrade of oil-rich Venezuela’s antiquated power grid. Another might be more spurious arrests of opposition politicians.
I’m betting on the latter.
That’s because the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro seems much more skilled at finding scapegoats than at fixing problems.
Venezuela is imploding under crises that include South America’s highest inflation and homicide rates, chronic shortages of basic goods and a currency fiasco. According to Maduro, the causes are sabotage – as his energy minister argued was the case in Tuesday’s outage, though he gave no proof.
It’s not about official incompetence or a negligent lack of infrastructure investment. It’s about U.S.-backed, fascist treason. Like that of the three unnamed Air Force generals Maduro said his government arrested on Tuesday for plotting a coup with unnamed opposition leaders.
Maduro insists that sort of sedition is also behind the ongoing anti-government unrest that began last month – and which so far has left more than 30 people dead, most of them protesters shot or beaten by security forces. For Maduro, the demonstrations have nothing to do with the fact that you can’t venture out after dark in most Venezuelan cities without worrying about being mugged or murdered. Or that when you do go outside it’s often to queue up for hours at a supermarket for scant supplies of rice or toilet paper.
So critics say that rather than take the turmoil as a cue to reset a disastrous, authoritarian policy course, Maduro and other top acolytes of the late revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez have decided to use it as an opportunity to witch-hunt opposition leaders.
Which is why, they add, we’re seeing an increasing number being put in jail or expelled from elected posts. One of the most recent targets was Enzo Scarano, the opposition mayor of San Diego in central Carabobo state, who spoke with NPR South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro for her recent report just before he was hauled behind bars last week for 10-and-a-half months for allegedly fomenting violence.
“He was sure that he was going to be arrested,” Garcia-Navarro told me, in large part because “he won his [mayoral] election with 75 percent of the vote. He says that’s the real threat the government feels he presents.”
The same may go for Daniel Ceballos, the opposition mayor of San Cristóbal, the city near Venezuela’s western border where the protests first started. Venezuela’s intelligence service accused him of “civil rebellion,” including “facilitating and supporting all the irrational violence in this city,” said Interior Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres.
Rodríguez has presented little or no evidence – just as Maduro had none to offer last month when he actually had opposition leader Leopoldo López arrested for murder after a pro-government militant was killed during protests in Caracas. Prosecutors eventually dropped the homicide charge, but López still sits in jail.
On Monday, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello expelled opposition assembly member María Corina Machado. Her alleged crime: Panama’s representative to the Organization of American States (OAS) yielded his speaking time to Machado last week to let her denounce the arrests and protester deaths. Cabello says that made her a de facto agent of Panama and therefore guilty of treason.
Machado isn’t exactly a nuclear political threat to the Chavista revolution. In 2005 she led an ill-advised boycott of legislative elections that essentially ceded the National Assembly to the socialists, a debacle the opposition needed years to recover from. Still, her loss of parliamentary immunity makes it likely she’ll be arrested herself.
But even if, as Garcia-Navarro says, “the Maduro government has decided the best defense is offense” amid these protests, the kangaroo justice critics accuse it of meting out to the opposition is hardly remedying the social and economic emergencies that sparked the demonstrations.
“The situation has absolutely deteriorated,” says Garcia-Navarro. “The government is of course trying to address” problems like the shortages. But, she notes, those crises have been “15 years in the making, since [Chávez] came into power, so it’s not something [Maduro is] going to be able to fix” any time soon.
In that case, Venezuela’s poorer citizens – who still largely support the revolution – might eventually defect to the largely middle-class opposition in numbers large enough to change the country's polarized political math. But right now, Garcia-Navarro aptly notes, the poor still “feel that the opposition really isn’t speaking to them…or addressing their needs.”
Even so, if Maduro keeps arbitrarily collaring his opponents, the OAS and other hemispheric organizations will have to drop their non-interventionist attitude and take up Venezuela’s worsening human rights situation. More than just the lights are going out in Caracas.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.