FOR YEARS, Venezuela’s democrats have struggled to salvage their country through peaceful means. The South American nation’s social and economic crisis is so profound, and its dictatorship so stubborn, however, that it would have been a miracle if at least a faction of the opposition did not resort to violence. That may be the reason for the bizarre detonation of explosives aboard two drones flying near President Nicolás Maduro as he addressed a military assembly in Caracas last week. Or it may not. Whatever the truth behind the apparent assassination attempt, in which seven people were injured, the relevant — and disturbing — consequence has been to give Mr. Maduro a pretext to clamp down on Venezuela’s already besieged opposition.
Responsible for dozens of deaths in a violent crackdown last year, the Maduro regime has unleashed its secret police again in the days since the explosions. Tuesday night, masked men presumed to be government secret police agents seized 29-year-old Juan Requesens, a leading regime opponent who sits in Venezuela’s near-paralyzed national legislature. Also, the government has issued an arrest warrant for Julio Borges, the former president of the National Assembly, who lives in Bogota, Colombia. In an especially clumsy attempt to divert attention from its own failings, Mr. Maduro pointed a finger of blame at the outgoing Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, and the Maduro regime asserted that purported assassins were trained in that neighboring nation as well. He leavened these accusations with similar ones against his “ultra-right” opponents in Miami.
Having secured another term in a farcical election on May 20, Mr. Maduro was desperately trying to address his country’s predicted 1 million percent inflation rate, and other symptoms of the economic catastrophe brought about by his own policies and those of his socialist predecessor, Hugo Chávez. “The moment of economic recovery has arrived” were the president’s words before the drone exploded overhead, interrupting his speech. Actually, it is far too late for Mr. Maduro to repair the damage his regime has inflicted, as the continuing exodus of destitute Venezuelans demonstrates. Some 500 Venezuelans cross the border with Brazil in a remote section of the Amazon rain forest every day; the situation in the Brazilian state of Roraima has grown so chaotic and unsafe that a judge recently ordered a suspension of border crossings until adequate humanitarian assistance can be organized.
The Maduro regime’s priority is not its people’s well-being but its own survival. Attorney General Tarek William Saab has declared that the government now considers itself “in the midst of a wave of civil war.” This has the ring of self-fulfilling prophecy. And time is growing short to prevent it from coming true. The Trump administration continues to condemn the Maduro regime’s excesses and maintain financial sanctions against it, but there are limits, rooted in history, to how much any U.S. administration can or should intervene. What hope there is for Venezuela rests with the domestic opposition, which must continue its steadfast resistance through nonviolent means, and with Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors, which must accomodate those fleeing the regime, and find new, more effective, ways to put pressure on it.