Instead of applying the brakes as Venezuela heads into an apocalyptic collapse, President Nicolás Maduro stepped on the accelerator last week by declaring a state of emergency that gives him virtual dictatorial authority over the rapidly deteriorating country.
The president then launched what his government called the biggest-ever military exercises in the country’s history, a thinly veiled attempt to frighten Venezuela’s increasingly restive population into submission.
There is little likelihood this cynical ploy will succeed. Mr. Maduro’s claims that the opposition is trying to mount a coup against his government by demanding a recall referendum are unlikely to win acceptance by Venezuelans who long ago became disenchanted with his antics and bumbling incompetence. One recent survey by the prominent polling firm Venebarometro showed that 60 percent of Venezuelans want him to go.
Nor is Mr. Maduro likely to persuade anyone outside his small circle of yes-men that the country’s crisis and the resulting unrest are fueled by the United States and other foreign enemies. Venezuelans won’t fall for that trick. There is neither evidence of any intervention nor any good reason for an outside force that wants to topple the government to intervene when the president is doing such a good job of it himself.
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The signs of crisis are evident everywhere on city streets. Most obvious are the long lines of desperate consumers seeking basic goods like toilet paper and food at the few places that remain open amid profound scarcity produced by a wretched economy and the highest inflation rate on the planet. The waits are interminable.
Then there is the rampant criminality that turned Caracas into the murder capital of the world in 2015 for any city not in a declared war zone. According to the independent Venezuelan Violence Observatory, the homicide rate was 119 per 100,000 population (compared to 4 per 100,000 in the United States). That is roughly a 16 percent increase since 2013, when the late Hugo Chávez passed away and left Mr. Maduro in charge.
Now comes the 60-day state of emergency, which gives extra powers to police and soldiers. It will do absolutely nothing to resolve the crisis of scarcity or governance in Venezuela, but it gives Mr. Maduro one more weapon to wield against the political opposition.
On Wednesday, protest marches were held across the country to demand that the government honor a petition with 1.8 million signatures — nine times more than needed — calling for a recall referendum. Instead of seeing a referendum as a political path out of the crisis, Mr. Maduro claimed it was filled with fraudulent signatures and made wild accusations about a conspiracy to oust him. In Caracas, police firing tear gas blocked the protest march.
With a shrinking political base, an increasingly desperate populace and no expectation of better living conditions, Mr. Maduro’s only hope of survival is continued support from his police and armed forces. But the president should ask himself: How much longer can he count on that?
On Friday, Mr. Maduro’s sagging regime got a reprieve of sorts when a group of outside leaders, led by a former prime minister of Spain, said they had met with the president and opposition leaders to arrange a national dialogue to resolve the political impasse. Mr. Maduro should seize the opportunity. It may be his last chance to save Venezuela from a political explosion.