Meet Maduro, Venezuela's copycat dictator

A Latin American country first becomes increasingly economically intertwined with Russia. Then, top Kremlin officials visit the country. The country’s president visits Moscow.

As the country’s economy quickly deteriorates, it becomes dependent on Russian aid. Offensive Russian military equipment is deployed in the country, which is in America’s backyard. A crisis ensues with the United States.

That, of course, sounds like the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it’s not. History is, in fact, repeating itself in Venezuela.

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This week, we learned that Russia sent a group of military planes, including nuclear-capable bombers, to Maiquetia, the international airport outside Caracas. While that is not as threatening as nuclear missiles 90 miles from Key West, the bombers could make it to Miami in a couple of hours.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS sanctions Venezuelan bank after Guaidó aide's arrest The Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game 2020 Dems avoid this year's AIPAC conference MORE slammed the move, saying that Russia sending bombers “halfway around the world” shows “two corrupt governments squandering public funds and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer.”

Liberty and freedom have long been squelched in Venezuela, which has become this hemisphere’s second-most authoritarian regime, nipping at Cuba’s heels.

The loss of freedom began with former President Hugo Chavez, who became a surrogate son to Fidel Castro and used Cuban intelligence agents to cement his power over Venezuela’s military and its people.

Following the Cuban playbook, he ignored Venezuela’s constitution, effectively imposing himself as de facto president for life. That life, however, ended when he was only 58 after he foolishly relied on Cuba’s health system to treat his cancer.

His hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, a left-winger who trained in Cuba, has taken the obsession with the communist island to the next level. He has modeled his every move on Fidel and Raul Castro’s failed revolution. Unfortunately, in the upside-down world of Latin American fellow travelers, the pupil has exceeded the masters.

The Castros ruined one of Latin America’s most-developed countries. Maduro has presided over a much greater economic catastrophe, taking a country that was among the richest on Earth 50 years ago to one of the poorest, in just a few years.

Hyperinflation, according to an estimate this week, has exceeded 1 million percent. International Monetary Fund calculations show it will reach 10 million percent in 2019. 

Add a poverty rate that has exceeded 80 percent, severe shortages of food and medicines, the re-emergence of eradicated diseases, plus one of the world’s worst violent crime rates, and it's no wonder why Venezuela has caused arguably the worst refugee crisis in Latin American history.

Of course, you’d think creating economic chaos would be the last thing a country’s leader would want. Not so in the “bizarro” reality created by communist dictatorships. Economic deprivation helps keep Maduro and his “sinverguenza” (shameless) kleptocrats in power.

This tactic follows the Castros’ playbook. When people are going hungry and survival becomes a full-time job, who has the time or energy to rebel against an oppressive regime?

Maduro has also excelled at learning from the Castros on how to repress his people. A Human Rights Watch article details a  United Nations Human Rights Council report that reads like a horror story.

It describes the “alarming rise in the intensity of abuses” under Maduro in a “climate of complete impunity” where the “rule of law is virtually absent.” It also finds that Venezuelan security forces use “arbitrary detentions to repress and intimidate civil society, political opponents, or any voices that might criticize the government.”

Making things worse, many of those detained have been “held incommunicado, and have suffered cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which clearly amounts to torture, including electric shocks, severe beatings, asphyxiation, and sexual abuse including rape.”

Another way Venezuela’s increasing totalitarianism is improving on Cuba’s example (again, in an upside-down reality) is that it has enlisted the help of China to roll out a new version of its euphemistically-named identification card, the “carnet de la patria” (“card of the homeland”), the equivalent of a Cuban ration card on steroids. The Chinese have enormous investments in Venezuela and an important role in Cuba’s economy.

The new ID transmits information about its users. Venezuelans have little choice because they need it to get access to subsidized food, health and social programs essential for survival in a country where few earn enough to survive on their own. That makes it a remarkable tool for repression that Maduro can use to punish his opponents and reward his supporters.

Even a founder of Maduro’s ruling Socialist Party, Héctor Navarro, a minister under Chávez, told Reuters that this is “blackmail” because "Venezuelans with the cards now have more rights than those without."

So, what should the U.S. do when a strategically important country like Venezuela abuses its citizens, disrupts the region with its refugee crisis, threatens the Americas with re-emerging diseases, confiscates U.S. companies and chooses to be in cahoots with a Russian military provocation?

The incremental sanctions the U.S. has employed against the Maduro regime have been an abject failure in no small measure because of poor international coordination with the European Union and other allies but also because of Russian and Chinese support for Maduro.

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I have long argued that unilateral American intervention is a non-starter despite bellicose statements from President TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE and Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Morning Report — Washington readies for Mueller end game GOP eager to exploit Dem court-packing fight Rubio's pragmatic thinking on China MORE (R-Fla.) because Americans have no appetite for another war, and U.S. allies in South America have opposed military action.

Even calls for a much milder “inter-American force,” whose mission would be some sort of humanitarian intervention, have gone nowhere.

A more direct threat to U.S. national security might change that dynamic. A few Russian military planes may not be the tipping point, but it could fuel the momentum toward intervention, as will Jair Bolsonaro’s inauguration as Brazil’s president next month. He has talked of a responsibility to help Latin America fight communism, expressing the desire to work with Colombia to isolate Maduro.

So, the Venezuelan dictator may dream of being Fidel and of defeating the imperialist gringos in his own version of the Bay of Pigs. But, Maduro shouldn’t forget that even though he learned his lessons from Cuba, the U.S. has as well.

If the U.S. intervenes, he can be sure of one thing: Instead of ending up like Fidel, he’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars like another Latin American dictator, Manuel Noriega.

Antonio Mora (@AMoraTV) is the editor-in-chief of NewsandNews.com and a lecturer at the University of Miami School of Communication. He is a former news anchor for "Good Morning America" and a former host of Al Jazeera America's primetime International News Hour. He is both a Venezuelan and American lawyer who appears regularly on television as a Venezuelan-affairs analyst.