Listening to embattled President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela ramble for hours about an international right-wing conspiracy to oust him, it’s clear that he would use any fabricated pretext to jail opposition leaders and crack down on dissent.
On Thursday, intelligence agents dispatched by Mr. Maduro arrested Mayor Antonio Ledezma of Caracas, the capital, one of the politicians who has been critical of the president. Mr. Ledezma has been charged with conspiracy to help plot an American-backed coup. The arrest came a year after the country’s most high-profile opposition leader, Leopoldo López, was jailed on trumped-up charges that he instigated violent demonstrations.
“You know that the right in Madrid, the ultraright in Bogotá and the ultraright in Miami have forged an axis to conspire against the homeland,” Mr. Maduro said Thursday in a televised address.
Delcy Rodríguez, the country’s foreign minister, weighed in with an absurd detail, saying on Twitter that “the international community should know that the coup plan included airstrikes to tactical objectives without distinction of civilians.”
Mr. Maduro’s fears of a coup appear to be a diversion strategy by a maniacal statesman who is unable to deal with the dismal state of his country’s economy and the rapidly deteriorating quality of life despite having the world’s largest oil reserves. The country’s inflation rate has topped 68 percent, the currency has been in a tailspin for months and the black market has become dominant as state-owned shops contend with chronic food shortages.
Mr. Ledezma, a democratically elected official who has, so far, responded with remarkable stoicism, is the latest mayor critical of the government embroiled in legal proceedings. Mr. Maduro’s government has opened cases against 33 of the 50 mayors in the country who have been critical of his leadership.
The State Department responded forcefully to denounce the move on Mr. Ledezma and refute the charge that Washington was helping plot a coup. “We regret that the Venezuelan government continues to blame the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” the State Department said in a statement. “The Venezuelan government needs to deal with the grave situation it faces.”
In a televised address, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia also expressed concern about the developments in Venezuela, a neighboring country, as he made an impassioned plea that democratic principles be respected.
While Mr. Maduro may claim that he’s taking action against a potential coup, the fact is that the opposition movement is poorly organized and has not been able to mobilize against Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, the populist leader Hugo Chávez.
Leaders critical of Mr. Maduro have ideological differences about policy and have been at odds over the best strategy to bring about political change. As the situation in the country worsens, they would be wise to unite to champion democratic principles in months leading up to legislative elections expected to take place late this year.
Articulating an attractive and viable option to Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian and erratic rule would give distressed voters a way to oust him at the ballot box. With so many of the strongest opposition leaders facing charges, this obviously will not be an easy feat. But if the international community continues to champion their cause, and insist that a fair election is held, it might be possible.
Mr. Maduro’s conspiracy theories surely won’t cease, but even among many of his supporters, his credibility is nearly gone.