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In our opinion: Use trading status to leverage reforms in Venezuela

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

News reports indicate the protests are not strong enough to pose a threat to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who took over for the late Hugo Chavez and, by many accounts, rigged an election to solidify his power.

Ariana Cubillos, Associated Press

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Venezuela is reaping a predictable whirlwind from years of socialist policies that have fostered official corruption and led to widespread shortages of basic goods and rampant crime.

Recent protests have led to government crackdowns that resulted in at least 13 deaths. To some extent, these were predictable as well. Sooner or later, intelligent people were bound to rise up against intolerable conditions and demand change.

News reports indicate the protests are not strong enough to pose a threat to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who took over for the late Hugo Chavez and, by many accounts, rigged an election to solidify his power. However, a governor from Maduro’s own party made the unusual move of criticizing him for excessive force in the face of opposition, which signals some shifting in official circles.

Whenever unrest strikes an oil-rich nation, problems may ensue for the rest of the world, including the United States. Despite the belligerence Chavez showed toward the United States when he was alive, the U.S. remains Venezuela’s most important trading partner, according to a recent State Department fact sheet. About 500 companies based in the United States have a presence there.

Maduro has responded to the protests by blaming the Obama administration for trying to meddle in Venezuela's affairs. The charges seem baseless, other than the fact that jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is an economist who was educated at Harvard and who clearly understands the problems inherent with socialism.

Chavez destroyed Venezuela’s economy through a series of nationalizations, attacks on businesses and currency controls. He blamed businesses for the rising cost of goods and imposed controls that, predictably, led to shortages.

Maduro has carried on those policies, but without the charisma Chavez relied on to maintain some popular support.

The world needs to continue shining the spotlight on Venezuela. Maduro has tried to suppress coverage of the protests and of his attempts to crack down. He has threatened to expel CNN for covering the unrest. If he succeeds, the lack of international attention would allow him to do as he pleases without scrutiny.

The Obama administration should use its unique leverage as a trading partner to apply pressure on Maduro to leave protesters alone and institute reforms.

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