LAST WEEK, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro paid a visit to Havana and met with Raúl and Fidel Castro, who have been his patrons and who helped to install him in power after the death of Hugo Chávez. Mr. Maduro’s political situation is desperate: As Venezuelans suffer severe shortages of staple goods and soaring inflation, his approval rating has dropped to 22 percent — and that’s before the full impact of falling oil prices hits a country dependent on petroleum for 96 percent of its hard-currency revenue.
On his return from Havana, Mr. Maduro turned to a familiar tactic. Intelligence agents stormed the residence of the elected opposition mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, and took him away to a military prison. Mr. Maduro then delivered a three-hour rant on television in which he accused the opposition leader of plotting a coup against him with the help of the Obama administration. Needless to say, he had no evidence to support this ludicrous charge.
If this sounds like a script borrowed from the Castro regime, that’s because it is. With Havana’s encouragement, Mr. Maduro is trying to shore up his crumbling support by concocting supposed threats from the United States and using them to illegally imprison his leading opponents. Mr. Ledezma follows several other mayors into captivity. With him at the Ramo Verde prison is Leopoldo López, the opposition leader who has been in military custody for more than a year.
The Castros, whose own crumbling economy depends heavily on supplies of discounted Venezuelan oil, are simultaneously trying to sustain their Caracas cash cow and line up new flows of dollars from the United States by restoring diplomatic relations. Intent on carrying out a policy of detente with Cuba that aides say was part of the ideological agenda he brought to office six years ago, President Obama ignores this double game.
To be sure, the White House spoke out sharply against the arrest of Mr. Ledezma and called the coup plot claims “baseless and false.” Following a mandate from Congress, the administration has sanctioned several dozen Venezuelan leaders for involvement in drug trafficking and human rights crimes and says it is considering additional steps. However, the core U.S. policy toward the unfolding disaster in a country that remains a major U.S. oil supplier has been to call on other Latin American countries to do something.
Predictably, they haven’t. Quick to pounce on right-wing governments that violate democratic norms, Brazil, Mexico and Chile have scrupulously avoided crossing the left-wing populist regime created by Chávez. A delegation of ministers from the regional group Unasur, which tilts toward Venezuela, is talking of returning to the country to promote a “dialogue” but has yet to call for Mr. Ledezma’s release.
The country with the most influence in Caracas is Cuba. U.S. officials ought to tell the Castros that they need to choose between Mr. Maduro’s anti-American-themed repression and the new relationship with Washington they say they want. As for Venezuela’s president, U.S. officials ought to seek his formal sanction under the Inter-American charter prohibiting violations of democracy — and challenge Venezuela’s neighbors to show where they stand.
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