GUEST COLUMN

Two nations close to civil war

Two nations close to civil war A demonstrator clashes with the police during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas | AFP
Jorge-Ramon-web

It pains me deeply to watch the turmoil afflicting Mexico and Venezuela, two countries I love. Both are suffering so much internal strife that they seem on the brink of war—not with each other, or with other nations, but with themselves.

Mexico is privileged both culturally and geographically—a country rich in solidarity, colour and humour. It is hard to feel lonely there, since the people are so welcoming. (And the food is quite tasty.)

However, the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently described Mexico as the second most dangerous country in the world [behind Syria]. In the five years of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s tenure, more than 79,000 people have died violent deaths in Mexico. These days it is hard to find a Mexican family that has not been affected firsthand by violent crime.

Two recent images of Mexico’s carnage have been haunting me. One photo, widely shared on social media, shows a bloodstained hat that belonged to Javier Valdez, a journalist known for covering drug trafficking. He was shot to death earlier this month in Culiacán, Sinaloa. The other photo is of a Mexican soldier executing an unarmed civilian on a street in Palmarito, Puebla, following a shootout. Both images are equally brutal.

Unfortunately, Mexicans have grown so familiar with such brutality that there has been no urgent reaction to these killings, no widespread calls for justice. In Mexico, death hangs around so often that it has become a companion.

Events that formerly caused outrage—such as the still-unsolved disappearance of 43 college students from Ayotzinapa in 2014—have become just another item in an ever-growing list of unpunished crimes.

The worst part is that nobody expects Peña Nieto to do anything about the violence. Few Mexicans believe that the president will change course before he leaves office next year, or that the situation will improve.

While Mexico seems resigned to the cycle of violence, the streets of Venezuela pulse with people hoping for change. Unfortunately, the crowds are being met with tear gas fired at them by Venezuela’s national guard.

Venezuela is so strikingly beautiful that Christopher Columbus, when he saw it on his third voyage to the New World, thought he had arrived in paradise. That paradise is now crumbling, especially since President Nicolás Maduro stopped pretending to be a democratic leader and ordered the dissolution of the congress. These days, the streets of Caracas and other major Venezuelan cities have become battlegrounds.

The opposition’s strategy is clear: take to the streets until Maduro is toppled or agrees to an exit plan. Meanwhile, the government intends to crack down on the opposition until the protesters simply cannot endure any more.

Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader now behind bars, coined a rallying cry to galvanise the movement: “If you get tired, you lose.” The opposition has taken that cry to heart and has refused to yield the streets. But more than 40 people have been killed in clashes with authorities. The victims are mostly young people who should be studying, travelling, dancing and discovering life, not death.

Two recent videos from Venezuela have given me sleepless nights. One shows a guard shooting a tear-gas canister point-blank at a protester’s chest. The protester stands up, staggers a few feet and then falls again, fatally wounded. The other video is of a television screen where Maduro is seen dancing—as the camera pans to show the official crackdown out on the street, as though Maduro were Nero at play while Rome burned.

After almost 18 years of authoritarian rule, and now living under an open dictatorship, Venezuelans cannot take any more. Shortages of food and medicine have become intolerable, and everyone who could get out has left the country. And now we are starting to see that even the Chavistas who created the system are disillusioned with it.

Over the years, many analysts, myself included, have predicted that Venezuela was finally on the verge of change, only to see the status quo remain. But recently when I saw a group of youngsters forcing an armoured car to back up, I thought: “They have lost their fear in Venezuela. Maduro is over.”

No, civil war has not broken out in Mexico and Venezuela. But both seem headed in that direction.

Jorge Ramos is a Mexican-American journalist and author.

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