Accepting his Oscar for best supporting actor at the Academy Awards Sunday night, Jared Leto showed more understanding than most politicians that danger lurks around the corner, when he expressed support not only for the protestors in Ukraine, but also Venezuela. Washington is understandably focused on the crisis in Ukraine, where civil war threatens after Russian forces invaded that strategic Central European nation. President Obama and other key leaders are frantically engaged in forging an appropriate response to Vladimir Putin’s flagrant aggression. All our diplomatic energy is focused on managing that critical situation; which is starting to sound like the opening paragraphs of a Tom Clancy World War III Apocalypse novel. But while Ukraine is a huge and urgent problem, as Mr. Leto makes clear, we should not overlook widespread civil unrest much closer to home, in the oil-rich South American nation of Venezuela.
As the Oscar-winning Jared Leto reminded the world, don’t forget divided, shaky, explosive Venezuela, a nation far more relevant to our patch of the world.
Even with the death of Venezuela’s flamboyantly anti-American president Hugo Chávez in March 2013, the country still teeters on the brink of chaos. Ukraine is split roughly down the middle; the East favoring Russia, the West tilting toward Europe and the United States. Venezuela is also split down the middle, but the divide there is not geographic, it is economic. It is a Tale of Two Venezuelas in which a bare majority of mostly poor people supports Venezuela’s current socialist president Nicolás Maduro, a Chávez protégé. A slightly smaller faction, including most of the middle class, the business sector and, increasingly, many college students, opposes Maduro, just as they opposed Chávez.
Since early February, waves of violent anti-government demonstrations, the largest in a decade have swept Venezuela. As of Friday, 13 demonstrators had been killed, and allegations are spreading that among the hundreds of captive demonstrators some are being tortured. The protests, which began after a university co-ed was nearly raped, initially focused on the issue of violent crime in a country with the world’s fifth highest murder rate. With 56 percent annual inflation, and now basic shortages like food, the unrest broadened and took on the ugly divisions of race and class that have plagued Latin America for centuries.
I’ve visited Venezuela many times in good times and bad, graciously treated from the lovely Los Roques islands in the Caribbean to spectacular Angel Falls, the world’s second highest in the interior. Translated into Spanish, my old talk show ran here for many years. Covering the last round of widespread chaos, in 2003, I reported from Caracas on how the “blood in the streets of this strike-paralyzed capital city coincided with the arrival this morning of ex-president Jimmy Carter, the Nobel laureate here to try and resolve this now eight-week-long crisis.”
“Do you have realistic hopes for a peaceful resolution to this, or — is it as grim as it seems,” I asked the tireless and ever optimistic 39th president?
“I think there is always hope for resolution, and I hope that it will be soon,” he answered, correctly predicting that the country would stop short of total anarchy and civil war that time around.
Instead of disintegrating into civil war in 2003, Venezuela stumbled on, experiencing a self-inflicted and steady decline. In my experience, they are one of the most pleasant, welcoming people, living in one of the prettiest places on earth. But the nation has been allowed to decay into what seems a permanent state of militant road rage. Aside from the rampant crime, and inflation 10 times higher than it is in the United States, refined gasoline is being imported from abroad although the nation sits on an oil reservoir that rivals Saudi Arabia. Opposed by virtually the nation’s entire middle and upper class, for a decade under Chávez and now Maduro, his hand-picked and less charismatic successor, Venezuela’s hard left-wing government has ignored economic reality, squandered its oil resources, while appeasing the poor with free gas and Cuban medical care. Small wonder the unrest is so endemic and dangerous.
By all means President Obama should be focused on finding a peaceful, equitable solution to the crisis in divided, shaky, explosive Ukraine. But as the Oscar-winning Jared Leto reminded the world, don’t forget divided, shaky, explosive Venezuela, a nation far more relevant to our patch of the world.