THE echoes are striking: division, a government combining a democratic mandate with thuggery, and an opposition that is increasingly radicalised. The parallels between Venezuela and Ukraine are not exact: the fractures in Venezuela are based largely on class, and those in Ukraine partly on geography. But both are caught in a spiral of protest and violent response.
Years of mismanagement of the oil-rich economy, first by Hugo Chávez and latterly by Nicolás Maduro, his successor, have come home to roost. The country is sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves, but scaring off the investment needed to exploit them. Much of its oil revenue has been sucked up by corruption, or diverted to unsustainable social programmes and subsidies to allies, especially Cuba. The private sector is treated like a hostile force. Basic goods, from cooking oil to toilet paper, are scarce. Throw in rampant crime, and no wonder the country is buckling under the biggest protests in a decade.
The death toll already stands at 13. If it is not to rise dramatically, everybody must draw back. The opposition—supported by better-off and professional Venezuelans—is right to demand the freeing of Mr López and other political prisoners, an investigation into torture by the security forces and the disarmament of armed pro-government militias known ascolectivos. But rowdy opposition leaders who have blocked city streets should take down the barricades and instead should follow Henrique Capriles, leader of the moderates, who has called for protests to remain peaceful. The opposition has a responsibility to keep the streets calm.
Latin American governments have obligations, too. Most of the region has been uncritical of Mr Maduro since the protests began in early February; Brazil, the regional heavyweight, has been characteristically mute. Leftist sympathy for chavismo is one thing. Allowing Venezuela to become another Cuba, without any cry of complaint, would make a mockery of the claims of Latin America to be a democratic continent.
The revolution will eat itself
However, the man who can do most to break the spiral of violence sits in Miraflores, the presidential palace in Caracas. Mr Maduro must realise that his strategy of dividing Venezuela is only deepening its misery. If he wants to avoid chaos, he must instead seek to unify the country.
The regime will forfeit its claims to democratic legitimacy if he does not get the armed gangs off the streets, allow the media to report what is going on, release Mr López and enter into proper dialogue with Mr Capriles. He also needs to change Venezuela’s economic direction. A revolution that was once fuelled by oil is running on fumes; if the shelves get any emptier, even the poor will withdraw their support. Time is running out for Mr Maduro—and for Venezuela, too.