Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez protest in the surroundings of the Palace of Justice of Caracas, Venezuela, last week. (Miguel Gutierrez/European Pressphoto Agency)

In a bizarre turn of fate, the diehard supporters of Fidel Castro’s left-wing ideology seem to be fighting their last battle in Venezuela, as the frustrated, hungry population there pushes for democracy and change.

The political stalemate in Venezuela continued this week as the National Election Council, under pressure from the leftist government, failed to meet a Tuesday deadline to act on an opposition demand for a recall referendum this year that could replace President Nicolás Maduro. Though the required number of signatures appeared to have been collected, the council postponed a decision until Monday .

U.S. officials fear a disintegration of the current, delicate political situation. The Venezuelan government Tuesday called for the abolition of the opposition coalition, known as the MUD, which controls the country’s parliament. The government accused the opposition of “massive fraud” in the push for a recall vote — an allegation that Venezuelan opposition leaders and U.S. officials both dismiss. U.S. officials fear that the government’s attempt to ban dissent could provoke counter-demonstrations and a crackdown in the streets.

The government’s latest foot-dragging tactics are a sad illustration of the paralysis and decline that have afflicted the country since the revolution symbolized by the late Hugo Chávez ran out of gas after his death in 2013. It has sputtered along under his successor Maduro, propped up by aging Cuban leftists and their Venezuelan allies. But even Cuba has now partly defected, embracing the resumption of relations with the United States — leaving Venezuela with a collapsing economy, desperate food shortages, a corrupt government and a bitterly polarized political elite.

U.S. policy has been to work with other Latin American countries to nudge Venezuela toward the new leadership that a majority of the population now seems to want. The United States has operated through Latin organizations to isolate Maduro and his ruling group. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, courageously took the lead in May when he issued a carefully documented report on the abuses of Maduro’s government and proposed revoking Venezuela’s membership in the OAS. Secretary of State John F. Kerry endorsed Almagro’s stand in June.

U.S. officials this week discussed the next step in this isolation campaign, which would be to suspend Venezuela from the Latin American trading bloc known as Mercosur, which includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Maduro was scheduled to take the rotating presidency of the group this summer from Uruguay. But at the urging of Paraguay (with quiet U.S. support), that handover has been blocked.

The United States is also weighing sanctions that would restrict the travel and foreign banking of some top officials of the Maduro regime. Law-enforcement sources also disclose that sealed indictments have been handed up in U.S. federal courts naming nearly a dozen prominent Venezuelans allegedly implicated in drug-trafficking cases. U.S. officials say they intend to play these cards carefully — worrying that they could trigger even more disorder within the battered country.

The challenge for the Obama administration has been to help Venezuelans achieve change without making the United States the issue. This reticent strategy has been aided by the increasing willingness of the region’s’ giants, Brazil and Argentina, to resist Maduro’s pressure. The Vatican has also endorsed a mediation mission, which has tentative support from Maduro. That’s one ray of hope in the embattled country, according to Venezuelan opposition sources.

The role of the military will be crucial in maintaining order. The majority of the military is prepared to stand with the parliamentary opposition, according to retired Maj. Gen. Hebert García Plaza, a former member of Maduro’s cabinet who left in 2014 and has been accused of corruption by the regime. He says that the Venezuelan minister of defense, Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez, is seeking to prevent further deterioration of law and order.

The greatest danger to Venezuelan security, Garcia Plaza said in an interview, is a network of militias inside the country that back the most hard-line elements of Maduro’s government. Garcia Plaza shared with me documents showing that some of these militias were created years ago by Chavez himself, with the backing of Cuban Fidelistas, as a strategy to protect the regime from the kind of change movement that has now arisen.

Venezuela doesn’t get much attention in the U.S. media . But stay tuned next week when the final confrontation may come over Maduro’s recall.

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.