Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's government indicted opposition leader María Corina Machado this week for allegedly plotting to assassinate him.
But the thing to remember about Machado is that she isn't exactly the most competent anti-government operative.
She’s best known for blunders like leading the 2005 opposition boycott of parliamentary elections. That essentially gifted the National Assembly to Venezuela’s ruling and radical socialist revolution, turning it into a rubber stamp for then-President Hugo Chávez.
So if Machado really was planning to murder Maduro, it’s doubtful el presidente’s life was ever in much danger.
Above all, it's probably safe to assume that the charges against Machado are bogus. Maduro has never presented credible evidence to support any of his assassination conspiracy claims, which he cranks out almost as routinely as Venezuela pumps oil.
It’s his way – his authoritarian art – of scapegoating everyone except himself and his left-wing Chavista party for their spectacular mismanagement of the most oil-rich nation in the Americas. Maduro needs every distraction he can muster these days, because Venezuela’s myriad crises threaten to become full-blown catastrophes in the coming year.
And that’s largely because Maduro got dissed on the Danube last week.
At a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, members voted not to curtail production despite collapsing oil prices. That dooms Venezuela – which relies on oil for a ridiculous 95 percent of its export earnings – to selling crude at around $70-a-barrel. Problem is, the country needs prices above $100 to keep its spendthrift head above water.
In reality, the economy is already sinking – as this year’s deadly anti-government street protests made all too clear. Analysts estimate it shrank four percent in 2014 and will probably contract six percent in 2015. Meanwhile, inflation is raging above 60 percent. Foreign reserves are at their lowest level in more than a decade; so is the black-market value of Venezuela’s currency, the bolívar.
Maduro hopes his populist decree to slash prices on toys, clothes and appliances will brighten Venezuela’s Christmas. But discounted Barbie Dolls won’t solve the chronic shortages of food and other basic needs like toilet paper – and now medical supplies.
A close friend of mine in Venezuela has Parkinson’s Disease, and he can no longer find the medication he needs. U.S. doctors aren’t permitted to write his prescription, so I helped him find the pills in Central America. One of my neighbors here in Miami needs to get a heart stent into Venezuela so a relative can have life-saving surgery.
But ferrying anything into Venezuela is a mountainous trial because it’s so hard to score a seat on a flight there. The Maduro government is balking at using its dwindling dollar reserves to pay airlines for their ticket sales, so carriers like American have cut service into Venezuela by as much as 80 percent – if not completely.
The economy, though, is hardly Venezuela’s only emergency. That was evident during a forum at Florida International University here on Wednesday.
FIU’s Latin American and Caribbean Center (LACC), in conjunction with Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), laid out a host of ominous challenges for the region. Among them were violent crime and corruption – and on both counts Venezuela is an ICU patient.
Venezuela, in fact, bears the world’s second-highest murder rate today. And LAPOP found that a higher level of the country’s populace perceive their government to be corrupt than in any Latin American country.
Which is stunning since Chávez (who died in office last year) came to power in 1999 pledging to eradicate Venezuela’s notorious embezzlement culture.
Little wonder Maduro's approval rating has plummeted to 24 percent, according to the latest poll by Datanálisis in Caracas, or that 85 percent of Venezuelans feel the country is on the wrong track.
Since Maduro’s ideological blinders won’t allow him to put it on the right track – for starters, he has to end the government’s preposterously massive gasoline subsidy if he wants to get its fiscal house in order – he’s relying on prosecutions of “bourgeois” enemies like Machado to divert the eyesight of what supporters he has left.
But perhaps most insulting is Maduro’s recent insistence that even as this tropical Titanic goes under, “we will never cut one bolívar of what we spend” on Venezuela’s poor.
As someone who once taught in a Caracas slum, I’m the first to applaud the revolution for steering Venezuela’s oil wealth to the barrios for a change. But Maduro’s claim is patent nonsense, because the revolution’s economic train wreck already has betrayed the poor. Hyperinflation alone is the worst wage cut you can impose on them.
Machado may be guilty of inept opposition leadership. But Maduro’s incompetent governance is the genuinely indictable offense – and chances are he won't be able to distract even 24 percent of Venezuelans in 2015.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.