Showdown in Caracas

Democracy supporters fight back against Chavez's legacy of tyranny.

ALeqM5givHJr1yRYOknak-IPl6Sxz0iE0AIn a move that almost guarantees violent clashes, Venezuela's increasingly nervous Marxist caudillo is calling for his supporters to take to the streets Tuesday to combat a large planned march by that oil-rich nation's opposition.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is asking his allies, including state employees, to demonstrate in force against Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the opposition party, Popular Will (Voluntad Popular). Lopez, who has been accused by Maduro of inciting violence, asked Venezuelans to dress in white and march alongside him, daring authorities to arrest him.

Opposition Governor Henrique Capriles, who was beaten by Maduro in the dubious April election, said the government was instigating the unrest to “hide the grave problems that the country is facing with the scarcity of food, medicine, the inflation, devaluation and insecurity.”

Demonstrations against the Maduro regime have become commonplace because socialist economic bungling has caused shortages of consumer goods, food, and medicine. People have good reason to be upset. Runaway inflation is destroying savings. Inflation more than doubled over the past 12 months, rising to 56.3 percent in January, the central bank reports. The bank's scarcity index shot up to an unprecedented 28 percent, which means that at any given time more than one in four basic goods was out of stock.

Meanwhile, Lopez, who is now in hiding, vows to allow himself to be arrested.

“I’ve not committed any crime,” he said in a YouTube video. “If there is a decision to illegally jail me, I’ll be there.” Popular Will spokesman Carlos Vecchio said yesterday that the government is responsible for the protesters' safety.

Security forces raided Popular Will's headquarters yesterday.

"Four guys, dressed entirely in black, violently broke down the doors. They weren't police; they weren't National Guard," volunteer Lisett Esteves was quoted as saying. "They asked for leaders of the party. Intelligence agents then came in with a warrant to take away all of our equipment."

David Smolansky, mayor of El Hatillo, one of Caracas' municipalities, was in the building during the raid. "They were looking for Leopoldo and all the leaders of our political party," he said. "It's more proof that in Venezuela we don't have democracy."

On Feb. 12, three people were killed and 66 injured when demonstrators fought with government supporters. Of the 99 individuals detained from Feb. 12 to 13, 13 are still in custody after judges deemed their actions "severe." Student protesters are demanding that the detainees be free. Yesterday, for the sixth consecutive day hundreds of students in Caracas defied a presidential decree banning public demonstrations.

Maduro is the less colorful replacement for Hugo Chavez, a crude, erratic, neo-communist despot who officially died last March after seeking medical treatment from the quacks and bunglers of Cuba's so-called health care system. When he actually departed this world is far from clear. Hidden away from the public for months, Chavez, whose election in 1999 sparked a leftist revival throughout Latin America, may have actually died some time ago.

Maduro can count on community organizers to come to his aid.

Government-linked community councils and “Bolivarian Circles,” similar to Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, remain active. In order to identify citizens worthy of governmental persecution, neighborhood-based militias spy on citizens. In true Sturmabteilung fashion, these groups also break up opposition meetings by force.

Like the roving paramilitary death squads that have been active in various Latin American countries, violent groups with no formal governmental ties are useful because they can do the regime's dirty work, using force against opponents, and terrorizing the population, without directly implicating government officials.

Sounding somewhat like President Obama whining about Fox News, Maduro also claims international news outlets aren't providing fair coverage of his attempt to seize absolute power. He ordered Colombian station NTN24 off the air in Venezuela for committing the sin of showing the bloody civil unrest produced by his socialist policies. On Feb. 13 he accused Agence France-Presse of manipulating information.

It's all part of the politics of distraction, Venezuelan-style.

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