ANY DOUBT that new Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro is taking his cues from Cuba should have been dispelled by events over the weekend. As Mr. Maduro huddled with the Castro brothers in Havana and recommitted Venezuela to the heavy subsidies that keep the Cuban economy afloat, his functionaries back in Caracas made two announcements: first, that a promised audit of the questionable election that ratified Mr. Maduro as the successor to Hugo Chavez would be perfunctory, excluding the materials that the opposition says would show evidence of fraud; and second, that a 35-year-oldU.S. filmmaker arrested last week on ludicrous accusations of espionage had been criminally charged.
The dog-eared Castro playbook calls for distracting the public at times of crisis with crude anti-Americanism — and taking hostages who can be used for leverage with Washington. For more than three years, Cuba has been holding Alan P. Gross, a Bethesda-based contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, on patently false espionage charges, in the hope that he can swapped for five confessed Cuban spies imprisoned or paroled in the United States.
Now Mr. Maduro has his own “gringo,” as he called him: Timothy Tracy, a Hollywood-based documentary maker who spent several months interviewing Chavez militants and opposition students before he was abruptly arrested at the airport last Wednesday. Unlike Mr. Gross, who was hired by USAID to deliver Internet equipment to Cuba’s Jewish community, Mr. Tracy was not working for any U.S. agency, as the State Department quickly made clear. Friends described him as a naif who barely speaks Spanish.
Mr. Maduro and the regime’s propaganda apparatus are nevertheless portraying him as a sinister secret agent who was financing “violent groups” to provoke “a civil war.” That, claimed Interior and Justice Minister Miguel Rodriguez, “would lead to the intervention of a foreign power to bring order to the country.” Fear of a U.S. invasion? Another Castro cliché.
The real danger in Venezuela is not that an Obama administration unwilling to provide leadership in Syria would make any serious attempt to prevent Mr. Maduro’s consolidation of power. It is that Mr. Maduro will follow up on his jailing of an innocent American with a full-scale crackdown on the opposition. Government spokesmen have taken to calling Henrique Capriles, who challenged Mr. Maduro in the presidential election and demanded an audit of the results, a “fascist murderer”; the prisons minister said she has a cell waiting for him.
On Saturday, authorities arrested a retired general, Antonio Rivero, who — no surprise — is known for his denunciations of Cuban infiltration of the Venezuelan military. Mr. Maduro keeps promising he will soon apply “mano dura,” or a hard hand — a phrase that has been a favorite of Latin strongmen ranging from Anastasio Somoza to Augusto Pinochet.
Mr. Maduro and his Cuban tutors will likely watch to see if there is any substantial response from the Obama administration or other South American governments to the seizing of Mr. Tracy. If there is not, don’t be surprised to see Venezuela’s jails filled by Mr. Capriles and other political prisoners.