BY AUSTIN BAY
Despite five years of Obama Administration "smart diplomacy," Venezuela's deteriorating socialist regime is following a classic script as its replacement caudillo blames America for his own regime's legacy of economic folly, domestic repression, corruption and criminal turpitude.
That America should continue to serve as a gangster clique's scapegoat ought to surprise no one except the gullible frumps who thought Barack Obama's presidency would reset relations with Russia, reduce the cost of health insurance and end the ocean's rise. For over 200 years, "blame America" has been the baseline propaganda ploy of dictators and corrupt oligarchs confronting the impoverishing consequences of looting their own countries and brutalizing political opponents.
When compared to his flamboyant predecessor, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's replacement president, Nicolas Maduro, is a second-rate caudillo and fourth-string media operative.
Chavez, who died of cancer in March 2013, began his career as a paratrooper. Maduro, who won a disputed election in April 2013, is a bus driver turned union organizer turned Chavez toady, then successor. Union toughs can earn hard-boy reputations (a résumé essential for caudillos), but jumping out of airplanes is automatically macho.
Still, Chavez picked Maduro as his heir for a reason. The second-stringer possesses two of his mentor's talents: He's a first-rate goon and relentless America-hater.
Brutal police and blaming America won't reduce inflation (Venezuela's is currently a whopping 56 percent a year) but they can help keep the caudillo's gang in power. Chavez, like his fellow America-blamer, Fidel Castro, both had the Mussolini knack for combining aggressive macho with charismatic spectacle. The political pay-offs for their regimes were, respectively, the Chavismo and Fidelismo personality cults.
Maduro has tried to leverage Chavez' cult by claiming kudos from the deceased strong man. Chavez appears to Maduro as a bird. Parachutist wings?
Maduro does know how to employ brutal secret policemen. This Tuesday, Feb. 18, cops and soldiers arrested Maduro's main political opponent Leopoldo Lopez. A former mayor of a Caracas suburb, Lopez is a graduate of two U.S. colleges, Kenyon and Harvard. He has the media presence of Mexico's President, Enrique Pena -- the same sophisticated charm.
Venezuelans have been complaining about corruption for years, but complaints about economic mismanagement have increased since mid-2013. In October 2013, Maduro accused the U.S. of plotting a coup, then had soldiers seize several businesses that he claimed were gouging the public. How classic. Blame America, have thugs seize private property. But inflation continued to soar.
Earlier this month, Lopez rallied student demonstrators protesting Maduro's crackdown on civil rights. Subsequently, at least three demonstrators died as protests spread. Several other people have been killed in what Maduro claims is violence instigated by Lopez and outside forces (America).
Lopez is now charged with terrorism and threats against the Maduro government.
Lopez firmly believes there should be no Maduro government. Lopez and several million other Venezuelans think Maduro stole the 2013 election. Maduro beat pro-democracy candidate Henrique Capriles by about one percent of the vote. Capriles accused Maduro of fraud, but then he capitulated.
Lopez thinks Capriles made a huge mistake. He told a Venezuelan interviewer that the country cannot survive until the next election (2019). "The struggle against poverty," Lopez said, "against drug smuggling, against irregular groups (paramilitary militias) tearing into the fabric of our country ... can't wait six more years. It would be immoral to not do all we can right now."
On Feb. 18, Lopez turned himself in to security agents and was hauled off in a military vehicle. Lopez said he had done nothing wrong, and he was being arrested by "unjust justice." However, he hoped his illegal incarceration would spark more mass protests.
Maduro and his Chavista clique, however, will continue the crackdown. Why? Because unjust justice, poverty, their paramilitary thugs, socialist looting and crony drug smuggling aren't the source of Venezuela's problems. No, America is. On Feb. 17, Maduro's regime declared three U.S. "personae non gratae" and expelled them. The U.S. diplomats were accused of organizing the protests and plotting against Venezuela. In September 2008 (Bush Administration), Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador for supporting anti-Chavez political groups. The Bush Administration said no, the U.S. ambassador was supporting freedom.
On Feb. 18, Obama's State Department rejected Maduro's accusations and said the U.S. supports "fundamental freedoms."
Read more Austin Bay columns at www.lowellsun.com.