The bloodshed in Caracas over the past 12 days brings to mind the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, where President Obama greeted Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez with a huge grin and a warm handshake. A couple of months later the State Department attempted to force Honduras to reinstall pro-Chávez president Manuel Zelaya, who had been deposed for violating the constitution.
Brows were knitted throughout the Americas. Why did the U.S. president favor the Venezuelan dictator, protégé of Fidel Castro, over Honduras, which still had a rule of law, press freedom and pluralism?
Fast forward to last Wednesday, after four peaceful student-protesters had been confirmed as having been killed by the government’s armed minions. Mr. Obama took notice, pronouncing the brutality “unacceptable.” That must have been comforting to hear amid the gun shots and pummeling on the streets of Caracas.
That same night the government of Nicolás Maduro —Chávez’s handpicked successor—unleashed a wave of terror across the country. According to Venezuelan blogs and Twitter posts, the National Guard and police went on a tear, firing their weapons indiscriminately, beating civilians, raiding suspected student hide-outs, destroying private property and launching tear-gas canisters. Civilian militia on motor bikes added to the mayhem. The reports came from Valencia, Mérida, San Cristóbal, Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz and elsewhere, as well as the capital.
Venezuela has promised 100,000 barrels of oil per day to Cuba, and in exchange Cuban intelligence runs the Venezuelan state security apparatus. The Cubans clearly are worried about losing the oil if their man in Caracas falls. Opposition leader Leopoldo López, who heads the Popular Will political party, spent several years building a network of young recruits around the country. Last week’s unrest is a testament to that organization, and it is why the 42-year-old Mr. López is now behind bars.
In Ukraine, the European Union has pressured the government to reach a compromise with the opposition. Venezuelans are getting no such help from the neighbors. Only Colombia, Chile and Panama have objected to the crackdown. The rest of the hemisphere doesn’t have even a passing interest in human rights when the violations come from the left. The Organization of American States is supposed to defend civil liberties, but since Chilean Socialist José Miguel Insulza took the OAS helm in 2005, it has earned a disgraceful record as a shill for Cuba.
Venezuelans seeking change face daunting odds. The crowds in the streets of Caracas in recent days have not been significantly bigger than in many prior-year protests, including 2002, when a march in Caracas almost unseated Chávez.
This time the repression has been fierce. Besides injuries and death, hundreds have been detained and it would not be surprising if many are given long sentences. Mr. Maduro needs scapegoats for the violence he unleashed. Iván Simonovis, the former head of the Caracas Metropolitan Police, has been a political prisoner since 2004. Chávez made him take the fall for the 17 people killed in the April 2002 uprising even though video evidence points to chavista snipers. Photos of the once-fit policeman, frail and gravely ill from the inhuman circumstances of his long incarceration, are chilling.
Another problem is the division within the opposition. The governor of the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles, represented a broad coalition of anti-chavista parties when he ran for president in 2013. But when he conceded to Mr. Maduro amid strong evidence that the election had been stolen, Mr. López and other members of the opposition broke with Capriles supporters.
Students have also been hamstrung by a communications blockade. The government controls all Venezuelan television and radio airwaves. When the violence broke out, it forced satellite providers to drop the Colombian NTN channel. Internet service has been cut in many places.
Getting the very poor on board for a regime change is a challenge. Some still see chavismo as their government, even if they have no love for Mr. Maduro and suffer from high inflation. Others don’t dare speak out, for fear of losing state jobs or their lives. The barrios are terrorized by the chavista militia.
Mr. Maduro says he will use every weapon to quell the unrest. On Friday afternoon the son of a Venezuelan friend sent me photos from Caracas of troops massing at the Francisco de Miranda air base in the middle of the city. The Cuban-backed Venezuelan high command, Cuban intelligence (the country is thick with agents) and plainclothes militia will play rough.
On the other hand, the government is bankrupt, and food and other shortages will get worse. Mr. Maduro may pacify Caracas, but food is harder to find in the interior of the country than in the capital. It is there that the fires of rebellion, burning for the first time under chavismo, might race out of control. Many army officers come from lower-middle-class families, and it is not clear that they will stand by and watch large numbers of civilians being slaughtered. Many resent the Cuban occupation.
What comes next is hard to predict. But no one should underestimate Cuba‘s comparative advantage: repression.