Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Venezuela on the brink


OUR OPINION: Maduro can stop the violence by opting for compromise

On the surface, the upheaval in Ukraine and the political unrest in Venezuela seem far apart in distance and character. But dig a little deeper and the parallels are striking — and ominous.

Protesters in Ukraine want their country to join the West by becoming closer to the European Union, but President Viktor F. Yanukovych prefers to sidle up to Russia. The conflict playing out on the burning streets of Kiev may be the last battle of the Cold War as a new Europe emerges.

In Caracas, as in Kiev, the underlying issue is whether the country will follow a worn-out and discredited authoritarian model from the last century — Cuba — or ally itself with regional democracies that honor human rights and political freedom.

In both countries, the strain between competing forces has produced a polarized society. And in both places, the elected leaders have opted for repression instead of addressing the legitimate grievances of the protesters.

The result: The streets in Kiev are on fire, and Venezuela’s cities are teeming with protesters and growing unrest.

Demonstrations in Venezuela have not yet reached the deadly levels of those in Ukraine, and hopefully they never will. What happens next depends on the choices made by President Nicolás Maduro. Thus far, unfortunately, he has opted for a show of force rather than a show of compromise.

Mr. Maduro’s supporters make much of the fact that he is the freely elected leader of the country. That is precisely why he should be held to a democratic standard. In democracies, leaders represent all the people, not just their own followers. They have a duty to listen to the other side and engage in dialogue before political differences degenerate into violence.

Mr. Maduro is having none of it so far. He has chosen to put government-supported paramilitary thugs and club-wielding riot police on the streets, cursed his opponents as fascists and tried to impose a media blackout (on Friday he kicked out reporters for CNN en Español). In some cities, the military has been called into the streets to restore order.

All of these actions serve only to exacerbate the crisis rather than to turn down the heat.

Furthermore, Mr. Maduro also jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges of inciting violence, though he dropped ridiculous charges of murder and terrorism. This, too, is a tactical mistake that elevates Mr. López, who has adopted confrontational tactics, into the position of de facto leader of the opposition. The longer Mr. López remains in custody, the more his stature will grow and the more difficult it will be for the government to end the crisis.

As this is written, the opposition has called for more street protests over the weekend. Former opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who does not agree with the defiant wing of the protest movement, has pleaded for demonstrators to avoid violence, but Mr. Maduro is playing into their hands by staying wedded to a hardline stance that promises to generate greater bloodshed.

In Ukraine on Saturday, Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych and released jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. In response, some barricades in the streets came down.

Mr. Maduro should pay heed. It’s not too late to pull Venezuela back from the brink, but it will require compromise and dialogue rather than tear gas and bullets. Is he capable of that?

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