Maduro is taking the gloves off against his opposition

Venezuela's President Nicolas MaduroREUTERS/Carlos Garcia RawlinsVenezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting with supporters at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, February 19, 2015.

Venezuela has reached a point where dissent of any kind will no longer be tolerated, and over the past week reports of masked men abducting opposition political leaders have started to leak out of the country.

This is no small thing. Until this point Venezuela’s ruling regime has flirted with autocracy, but hasn’t embraced it outright.

During the reign of late-president Hugo Chavez opposition parties were starved of media attention but were still allowed to exist. His death, however, left his successor Nicolas Maduro, with little legitimacy and an economy on the bring of collapse.

And what little Maduro had left started sliding along with oil prices. The commodity makes up 95% of Venezuela’s exports and the revenue from its sale is desperately needed to balance an already-bloated budget.

As is the situation is dire. Venezuela’s inflation rate is over 60% and hundreds wait in the line for days (sometimes) to buy basic goods and groceries at astronomical prices. A box of condoms costs as much as an iPhone in the US.

Leopoldo Lopez carted off to jailReuters, Jorge SilvaVenezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez gets into a National Guard armoured vehicle in Caracas February 18, 2014.

Enter the masked men. Last week they took jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, from his cell in the middle of the night. According to his wife, Lilian Tintori, they destroyed his belongings and moved him into solitary confinement with no running water. Human Rights Watch confirmed the incident, which is believed to be in retaliation for Tintori’s visit to the US.

“It is as outrageous as it is shocking that President Maduro is punishing Leopoldo for his wife having met Vice President Biden,” said Lopez’s international council, Jared Genser. “The fact that a dozen masked men raided Leopoldo’s cell, destroyed its contents, and moved him into an isolation cell, without any judicial order or legal authority, only reaffirms the lawlessness of the Venezuelan State.”

Lilian tintori venezuelaReutersLilian Tintori (L) wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, and former president Andres Pastrana (C) from Colombia are stop by national guards outside the military prison of Ramo Verde outside Caracas January 25, 2015.

Days later, about 30 masked men took Leopoldo to a high security military prison. This after he did a half hour interview with CNN Espanol.

Lopez has been in jail for the last year awaiting trial. Close to the anniversary of his arrest, masked men took Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma into custody. His wife reported that he was beaten as he was taken.

Antonio ledezma hunger strike 2009ReutersAntonio Ledezma hospitalized after his 2009 hunger strike.

“I hold Nicolas Maduro responsible for the the life of my husband,” she said through his twitter account. “They are after him for speaking the truth and fighting for democracy.”

During the Chavez regime Ledezma’s (sometimes dramatic) displays of descent were tolerated. Back in 2009 he was hospitalized after a three day hunger strike.

Now reports indicate that they’re coming for Maria Corina Machado, another opposition leader labelled a traitor by the government. She is accused of plotting to assassinate the president, a crime punishable by 8-16 year sin prison.

The reported risks did not, however, stopped her from taking to the streets on Friday along with Tintori.

If Maduro’s regime wishes to regain legitimacy, it must right the country’s economic ship. Unfortunately that’s politically unfeasible for him. To do that, the regime would have to allow the bolivar to devalue dramatically, raise domestic gas prices, and do away with price controls. All of these measures go against Chavez’s legacy, and the narrative Maduro has been putting forth since he took office.

In the meantime, the streets of Caracas are a tinder box.

VenezuelaReuters/Jorge SilvaOpposition students march next to national guards during a march against President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas February 12, 2015..

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