Venezuela’s Maduro and Cuba’s Castro lose, democracy wins

Mary Anastasia O’Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Maduro and Cuba Lose

A civilian operation attempting to bring tons of international aid into Venezuela on Saturday was more than an effort to alleviate some small fraction of the nation’s misery. Its main purpose was to reinforce the authority of interim President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s head of state. That’s why the dictator Nicolás Maduro pledged to stop it, despite a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

Mr. Gauidó had hoped the army and National Guard would sympathize with the people, but most of the Venezuelan armed forces followed Mr. Maduro’s orders to block the trucks at the border. Mr. Guaidó was left tweeting, giving speeches and congratulating a handful of midlevel officers who defected.

But Mr. Maduro didn’t win the day. The uprising is a struggle to expel the ruling Cuban dictatorship, which began putting its claws into Venezuela 20 years ago. The Castro clan are skilled propagandists, but in Venezuela they’re being outplayed.

The world sees the epidemic of malnutrition and disease. So Mr. Maduro did himself no favors when, in early February, he used two large shipping containers and an oil tanker to block the International Bridge of Las Tienditas linking Norte de Santander, Colombia, with Táchira, Venezuela. The idea was to look tough. It looked coldhearted and despotic.

Things got worse on Saturday. Video and photos of soldiers, police and paramilitaries unleashing brutality against unarmed civilians went viral on social media. Those who had been shot with rubber bullets showed their wounds on camera as people choked on tear gas nearby. A drone flying over the Francisco de Paula Santander Bridge, another international crossing, filmed hundreds of people lined up behind a few large tractor trailers carrying donations. Black smoke billowed from one of the trucks sabotaged by Maduro’s goons.

The world watched in horror as the day unfolded. In the afternoon, even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had earlier criticized President Trump’s support for Mr. Guaidó, took to Twitter to acknowledge the “serious humanitarian crisis” and call on Mr. Maduro to allow the aid in and “refrain from violence against protestors.” Cuba’s spin masters were experiencing a rare defeat.

In Caracas, above an English-language banner reading, “Hands Off Venezuela,” Mr. Maduro spoke to a relatively small crowd of loyalists. Shaking his fist in the air, he invoked age-old clichés against U.S. imperialism and even belted out a thickly accented “Yankee go home.” That used to work—once upon a time. But the cameras soon cut back to the border, where troops were clashing with shirtless young men hurling rocks.

On Friday, along Venezuela’s border with Brazil, indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan communities pleaded with the regime to let food and medicine pass. Mr. Maduro closed the border. At least four protesters in that area were killed and more than 29 injured, according to a report in El Nacional. Over the weekend, video caught buses and trucks carrying Maduro enforcers heading to the border town of Santa Elena de Uairén to put down the rebellion.

Since his discredited re-election last year, Mr. Maduro has tried to frame what is a homemade uprising as an assault on Venezuelan sovereignty. He accused aid caravans of being Trojan horses for an American invasion. Yet only Cuba, Iran, Russia, China and their allies still support him.

Before Hugo Chávez, democratic Venezuela suffered corruption and misrule but seldom tyranny. That changed when Chávez imported castroismo. Since 2002, thousands of peacefully protesting Venezuelans have been victims of chavista snipers, National Guard beatings and executions and attacks by brownshirts riding motorcycles. Opposition members have been dragged off to dungeons, tortured and convicted by kangaroo courts.

Most recently there has been a targeted crackdown by the Venezuelan special forces in poor neighborhoods that have turned against the regime. On Sunday independent Venezuelan media reported that Mr. Maduro is liberating common criminals from jails with instructions to attack democracy advocates.

As the smoke cleared Sunday, Mr. Maduro and his Cuban handlers still had the upper hand. Yet something big has changed. With so many regime atrocities now recorded and circulated on social media and the privation triggering a mass exodus, Venezuelan suffering under Havana control is no longer ignored.

On Friday British billionaire Richard Branson sponsored a Live Aid-inspired concert for Venezuela in Cúcuta, Colombia. Star performers like Carlos Vives, Juan Luis Guerra and Venezuelan pop duo Chino & Nacho crooned for the cause. Pop culture, for a change, is saying, “Down with Cuban tyranny.”

This is new. It could explain why on Saturday there were reports hundreds of dissidents were pouring into the streets to protest repression in Cuba itself. That’s new, too. Venezuela is increasingly isolated. If it tips, it may not be the region’s only dictatorship to fall.