Venezuela: Maduro evokes spectre of foreign threat

Wyre Davies
Rio de Janeiro correspondent

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (back row 2nd L) poses for a photo with militia members during a military parade in La Guaira, Venezuela May 21, 2016Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
President Maduro said the country's armed forces and militia were prepared to meet any threat

Either President Nicolas Maduro genuinely believes there is a credible threat to Venezuela's national security from an unspecified foreign power, or he is delusional.

In what were described as the biggest ever military exercises to have taken place on Venezuelan soil, President Maduro proudly declared that more than 500,000 troops from the armed forces and civilian militias loyal to the government participated in "Operation Independence 2016" over the weekend.

"We have never been more prepared than this," barked the president in a speech evoking Venezuela's military heroes of the past, none more important than Mr Maduro's predecessor in office, Hugo Chavez.

Prepared for what exactly? There is no threat of invasion from Venezuela's neighbours and, while clearly keeping a close eye on developments, Washington is highly unlikely to make any direct intervention.

Full alert

Appearing alongside President Maduro, Minister of Defence Gen Vladimir Padrino Lopez said US "spy planes" had been detected violating Venezuelan airspace on two occasions this month.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Gen Vladimir Padrino (right) stood shoulder to shoulder with President Maduro

Proof, suggested the general, that Washington was planning an invasion and that Venezuela's armed forces should be placed on full alert.

President Maduro frequently blames the country's many crises on "economic warfare" promulgated by internal business elites and hostile foreign governments.

But by raising the spectre of a foreign invasion, many commentators suggest, the embattled president is showing signs of desperation, using an old but tired tactic to divert attention from what is really happening.

One might respectfully counter that the root cause for Venezuela's many problems lies much closer to President Maduro's front door.

Venezuelans are certainly suffering, as I saw in a large regional hospital in the provincial city of Maracay, to the west of Caracas.

Concerned doctors, at the end of their tether, told me how the healthcare system is on the verge of breakdown.

Image source, EPA
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Pharmacies are running low on stocks of essential medicines; many shelves are empty

They showed me wards, crammed full of patients but without basic medical equipment. I spoke to patient after patient whose operations could only proceed after they themselves had bought the appropriate medical supplies - splints, dressings, antibiotics etc.

With wards full, many people were forced to lie on gurneys or on the floor in filthy, dark corridors as the daily national blackout affected the most critically important sectors of society.

I spoke to the parents of a baby, severely ill with acute respiratory complications. They had to dig deep into their own pockets for an ill-fitting mask and respirator to keep her alive.

In another makeshift emergency room, as a young girl was undergoing an operation for a broken arm, there was an open drain full of filthy waste water with flies and mosquitoes everywhere.

'Patients are dying'

Most doctors are fearful of speaking on the record because of potential reprisals by loyal pro-government officials attempting to conceal the chronic crisis in Venezuela's health system.

But one junior doctor who did not mind speaking out was Emmanuel Torres.

Image caption,
Dr Torres says he sometimes pays for medical supplies himself

"Patients are dying because they can't get basic drugs," he told me, having just had to refuse a desperate mother ventilation treatment for her acutely asthmatic child because of an extended power cut.

"I've even had to pay for supplies myself to ensure that routine medical procedures can take place." added Dr Torres.

Reluctantly, he is contemplating a move abroad to work, along with as many as 40% of the country's doctors.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Venezuelans often have to queue for hours outside supermarkets to get the basics

But the shortages go much further than medicines. Venezuela has become a nation of queues.

Food, basic ingredients and household goods are all scarce in a country that became so dependent on oil revenues, it could not cope when the price crashed.

Outside supermarkets and pharmacies across Venezuela, people queue for hours on end, often not even knowing if they will get what they need once inside.

Media caption,
'People don't know what they're queuing for'

Babies' nappies, flour, sugar, milk and shampoo were just some of the items I heard being repeatedly listed by desperate but stoical shoppers.

You have to admire the resilience and patience of Venezuelans. This situation has persisted, indeed worsened, for the last two years.

Many of those I spoke to in a long queue near the sprawling Petare shantytown would have once regarded themselves as "Chavistas", supporters of the revolution promoted by the late President Chavez.

Recall plans

These are the people who, in last December's Congressional elections switched their allegiance to the opposition coalition.

Emboldened by that victory, opposition supporters have repeatedly challenged the government of Nicolas Maduro.

Their aim is to gather enough signatures to force a recall referendum against the increasingly unpopular leader.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Opposition politicians say they have collected 1.85 million signatures backing a petition in favour of a recall referendum

Mr Maduro, in turn, appears more autocratic and entrenched.

He recently declared a state of "economic emergency" and extended, for 90 days, his powers of decree.

He has also publically contemplated using those powers to dissolve a Congress which he regards as hostile and a threat to Hugo Chavez's socialist revolution.

Thus far, President Maduro has been able to count on the support and loyalty of the Venezuelan armed forces that he has vowed to use against opposition protesters "in defence of the revolution".

Perhaps, say observers, that is the real reason behind all the talk of "imminent invasion" and "foreign aggression": to create the emergency conditions that would enable the armed forces to deal with internal dissent.

These are dangerous days in Latin America's most unstable nation. Both government and opposition leaders have recklessly hinted at military intervention in the crisis.

International mediators have urged dialogue before it is too late but it is an appeal that has thus far fallen on deaf ears.