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Other Opinion: Time to halt Venezuela’s descent

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Anyone watching Venezuela’s descent into economic and social chaos in recent months could predict what would come next: street demonstrations by students and average citizens fed up with soaring inflation, shortages of basic goods, one of the world’s highest murder rates and a government whose only response has been to shout senseless populist slogans. Last week thousands took to the streets of Caracas and other major cities to protest; in the capital, several longtime opposition leaders joined in.

The response by the government of Nicolas Maduro was in part familiar: more bluster and more scapegoating of the U.S. Embassy, from which three consular officers were expelled on Monday. But the regime also resorted to more extreme measures. Several demonstrators were shot and killed last week by gunmen likely affiliated with security forces or pro-government militias. Meanwhile prosecutors charged an opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, with murder and terrorism. On Tuesday, Mr. Lopez courageously surrendered to authorities.

Mr. Maduro and government media are trying to portray Mr. Lopez as an extremist, calling him "the face of fascism" and alleging he was plotting a coup. In fact, the 42-year-old former mayor is a left-leaning, Harvard educated moderate who has proven over a decade that he is committed to peaceful and democratic change.

Government officials concede that Mr. Lopez was not present when shots were fired last Wednesday following a protest march. Videos and photographs compiled by Ultimas Noticias, a newspaper usually supportive of the government, showed the gunfire came from "individuals identified with uniforms, plates and vehicles of the [state] Intelligence Service accompanied by others dressed as civilians."

As long ago became clear, the extremists in Venezuela are not the opposition leaders or students, but Mr. Maduro and his regime. As the economic crisis they created worsens, they are strangling what remain of free media and the private sector by denying them hard currency needed for imports, including newsprint. They are attempting to terrorize a burgeoning, student-led protest movement into standing down. Scores of activists have been arrested in the last week and some have allegedly been tortured. The foreign meddlers are not at the U.S. Embassy but from Cuba, which has hundreds of operatives across the government helping to direct the repression.

Venezuela’s unraveling should be a frightening sight to neighbours such as Brazil, which has stubbornly supported Mr. Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez even as they wrecked what was once Latin America’s richest country.

What’s needed now is pressure on the government to stop its use of force and open negotiations with opposition leaders. With the next scheduled elections years away, Venezuela needs to forge a political compact behind measures to arrest the collapse of the economy and public order. The Obama administration, which has supported that course, has little leverage. It’s time for Venezuela’s neighbours to use their influence, before the chaos becomes uncontainable.

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