Last updated Friday, March 27, 2015 07:36am

Elderly protesters take part in a march for peace in downtown Caracas in this picture dated February 23, 2014. ― Reuters picElderly protesters take part in a march for peace in downtown Caracas in this picture dated February 23, 2014. ― Reuters picCARACAS, March 3 ― Venezuelans are angry, and it’s not hard to see why. Consumers must contend with the world’s highest inflation rate and shortages of basic goods such as flour. So shaky is the economy that investors recently judged the likelihood of Venezuela repudiating its debt to be higher than even that of Ukraine. And it has the world’s fifth-highest homicide rate, with recent victims including the 2004 Miss Venezuela and a former world boxing champion.

All of this has brought tens of thousands of demonstrators to the streets. These protests, which have resulted in at least 17 deaths and more than 200 injuries, are unlikely to unseat President Nicolas Maduro. But there are things he can do ― as can others, including the protesters themselves ― to defuse a dangerous situation.

The opposition needs to honour the country’s half-century record of democratic transitions and forget any secret hopes of provoking an early Maduro resignation. The president, who narrowly won a six-year term last April, can face a recall referendum only after reaching the midway point of his tenure.

Parliamentary elections are coming up in 2015. The opposition must muster the same discipline and unity that helped it score important victories in December’s municipal elections (and enabled it to almost beat Maduro). Yes, the continued chicanery of the government will make this difficult: It has smothered news coverage, stacked the judiciary and harassed opposition rallies. Maduro is not shy about using the resources and largesse of the state to sway voters.

Outside friends can help. Some of Venezuela’s democratic neighbours ― such as Colombia, Chile and Peru ― have called on Venezuela to respect freedom and human rights and pursue dialogue. It would be nice if Brazil had done the same, but President Dilma Rousseff is trying not to alienate leftists for her own re-election this year, and Brazilian companies such as the construction giant Odebrecht do a nice business with the government next door.

That diffidence needs to change. Latin American countries have a shared interest in defending democratic values through their own conduct with Venezuela and through greater support for regional groups such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In the Gallery


  • Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez stand at a barricade during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government, in a middle-class neighbourhood in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez stand at a barricade during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in a middle-class neighbourhood in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez stand at a barricade during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in a middle-class neighbourhood in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Opposition supporters smash furniture to form parts of their barricade during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in a middle-class neighbourhood in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez hold a banner as they block a street during a protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in a middle-class neighbourhood in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez shout during a rally to promote peace in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Supporters of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez hold flowers and shout during a rally to promote peace in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Opposition supporters stand over a monument of a tank which they dragged into the middle of the street during a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government San Cristobal, some 660km southwest of Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Opposition supporters walk past a burning barricade at Altamira square in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • An opposition supporter sits on a wall as protesters block a street at Altamira square in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Opposition supporters stand near a burning barricade at Altamira square in Caracas February 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Anti-government demonstrators run from tear gas during clashes with riot police at Altamira Square in Caracas February 24, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Anti-government demonstrators clash with riot police at Altamira Square in Caracas February 24, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A protester throws stones at a motorcycle after the rider tried to past a barricade in Caracas February 24, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A woman walks past a burning barricade in Caracas February 24, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Motorcyclists supporting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro ride on the main highway during a rally for peace in Caracas February 24, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A motorcyclist supporting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro takes part in a rally for peace in Caracas February 24, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A demonstrator holds a placard as she stands in front of national guards during a protest near the Cuba's Embassy in Caracas February 25, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • National guards keep watch outside the Cuba's Embassy in Caracas February 25, 2014. — Reuters pic

The US has little leverage with Venezuela. Indeed, next to class struggle, bashing Uncle Sam is the main tenet of Chavismo, the namesake ideology of Maduro’s predecessor and anti-American champion Hugo Chavez. So set aside your new idea of sanctions, Senator Marco Rubio ― you’d just be throwing Maduro & Co into their favourite briar patch.

The US has a few marginal options to hasten the end of Chavismo. Approving the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, and lifting the ban on the export of US oil could help reduce American reliance on Venezuela’s heavy crude. The US could also undermine the control and reach of the Castros by further easing limits on US commerce and exchange with Cuba, the ideological wellspring of Chavismo and supplier of its enforcers.

The one person who can do the most to ease tensions in Venezuela, of course, is Chavismo’s chief sponsor and benefactor: Nicolas Maduro. Thus far he has responded to the protests by blaming opposition “fascists” for the violence, arresting opposition leaders and stepping up censorship.

If Maduro is serious about wanting peace, he will release what are in effect political prisoners, beginning with Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader detained for inciting violence. He can also take up the suggestion by Henrique Capriles, his opponent in the last presidential election, to have the Roman Catholic Church serve as a mediator. ― Bloomberg View

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