The arrest of two elected mayors in Venezuela last week demonstrated that repression is ramping up in the oil-producing and deeply troubled country. The arrests—on trumped up charges of inciting and tolerating a rebellion in which 33 protesters have already been killed—signaled that the government of President Nicolas Maduro has shifted from systematically but subtly dismantling institutional checks and balances and independent media to purging the government of elected officials.
Sadly, Venezuela’s neighbors are unlikely to do anything about it, and this collective failure to protect democratic norms and human rights has placed the U.S. in the position of coming forward to defend what was once thought to be a hemispheric consensus. Given the toxic mix of narcotics trafficking, insecurity, polarization and institutional regression, the longer the situation is allowed to fester, the more regional governments risk a failed state in their own neighborhood.
Since taking office, Maduro has struggled to manage Venezuela’s deteriorating economic and political situation. He inherited inflation close to 50 percent, a fiscal deficit of 11.5 percent of GDP and an economy reduced to oil revenues for its hard currency and its growth. As a result, Maduro squeaked by in his April 2013 election victory with a 1.6 percent margin.