WASHINGTON -- Something is not quite right about this summer's stories from Venezuela, that immensely resource-rich but impoverished Latin American nation seemingly headed toward civil war.
The crisis seems clear enough. Bitter protests have been increasing by the day for the last three months, throwing the country once looked upon as the democratic hope of the hemisphere into brutal chaos. At least 90 people are already dead and 3,000 arrested. The confusedly "socialist" government is trying civilians in military courts.
But in the most strangely sinister twist to the conflict, Venezuelans are overthrowing garbage cans to scrounge for anything to eat, as well as dying of diseases, such as malaria, long defeated elsewhere. University studies show that three out of four Venezuelans lost an average of 18 pounds in the last three years.
At the borders of Colombia and Brazil, Venezuelans are fleeing like desperate animals just to find food. Many of them doubtless think back on the years before 1999 when refugees from Cuba and elsewhere fled to their country for freedom.
Most of the articles in the American press (when there are any at all) warn of a return to the old murderous and exploitative military dictatorships of yesteryear. An age when generals like Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Peron in Argentina and Perez Jimenez in Venezuela strode the stage like puffed-up, bemedaled roosters.
But here is where they have it not only "not quite right," but terribly wrong.
What we are seeing in Venezuela does not match any of those old analogies. Instead, it is the ongoing creation of the "revolutionary" Cuba of the Castro brothers, which is still expanding its essentially "soviet" structures and systems into South America.
The moves have been quasi-secret, but they are beginning to become known. For one thing, on July 30, Venezuela will vote on a proposition put forward by the thuggish former bus driver, President Nicolas Maduro, on whether appointed "communal councils" should take over from the present democratically elected National Assembly. These councils are essentially the old soviets of the Soviet Union -- courtesy of Cuba, of course.
Well-informed sources quoted in The Wall Street Journal now say that there are some 50 high-ranking Cuban military officers, 4,500 soldiers in nine battalions and 34,000 doctors and health professionals in Venezuela with orders to defend the government with arms. And Carlos Alberto Montaner, one of the most respected Cuban intellectual exiles, recently wrote an article in Miami's El Nuevo Herald characterizing the situation as "Venezuela at the Edge of the Abyss."
These developments started soon after Hugo Chavez, the former colonel who charmed the Venezuelan people with his talk of reform, his weekly radio chats and his jaunty red beret, took over in 1999.
When I spent hours with him the day before his election, he was charming and open, vowing not to copy others' revolutions, but to "create our own." Even if he meant it then, he didn't do it. Soon, the Cubans were everywhere and Chavez was regularly in Cuba, hugging Fidel like a boy in Wrigley Field in Chicago meeting Ernie Banks for the first time.
Two things seem to me to be important here:
1. Anyone who thought Raul Castro was really giving up spreading revolution because American tourists are now drinking mojitos at Hemingway's favorite bar in Havana had better have a drink themselves.
2. What we are truly seeing in Venezuela is the formation of a "Mafia state," with corruption that will stagger even the most cynical misanthrope. Responsible analysts say that, of an estimated $1 trillion in oil revenue received during the Chavez-Maduro years, more than $300 billion went to corrupt officials, many of them generals in a now criminalized military.
Moreover, it's a Mafia state that can be compared only to Russia's, except that Venezuela is sitting on trillions of dollars in oil revenue and has aligned itself, not only with Cuba, but also with Russia, China, Iran and Syria.
A small problem here. The U.S. still buys 95 percent of Venezuela's oil, and while the disastrous Chavez-Maduro know-nothing economic policy has destroyed its industrialized sectors, Venezuela turns out, ironically, to be wholly dependent upon Washington economically. President Trump has already frozen assets of some of the worst Venezuelan offenders, many of them also involved in the drug trade, and is presently working on whether to sanction Venezuela itself.
Venezuela was a country that had everything going for it. There was only one thing it didn't have: enough even halfway honest political and financial leadership to reasonably develop the country.
That is the message of the protesters on the streets, and God bless 'em.
Georgie Anne Geyer