BOGOTA  Democrats in the Americas can no longer doubt that Venezuela's impostor president, Nicolás Maduro, and Diosdado Cabello, the murky speaker of parliament some have accused of running a trafficking ring from within the state apparatus, are imposing a veritable dictatorship on Venezuela. It's also clear that their economic model, which is producing widespread food shortages, is a thundering failure.

The arrest on Feb. 19 of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a key figure in the opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition, coincides with the rather painful anniversary of the detention of another government opponent, Leopoldo López. Outspoken former MP María Corina Machado and other regime critics, in the meantime, have been receiving constant threats.

The pressure being exerted on these opposition leaders shows just how determined the "Castro-Chavista" regime is to maintain its grip on power and deepen its Cuba-inspired "revolution of 21st century socialism."

Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma — Photo: El Nacional/GDA/ZUMA

Working against the Maduro-Cabello duo is a collapse in oil prices that curbs their government's ability to maneuver and to spend and spend, as it did when a barrel of crude cost about $100. The Venezuelan people, in turn, are becoming more and more restless. More than two thirds of the population now disapprove of the president. The setting, in other words, is increasingly favorable for changes sought by MUD.

The regime knows all this, which is why it is intentionally provoking the opposition. In doing so, the government hopes to goad its opponents into responding with violence, precisely what Maduro and Cabello need to justify an even more thorough crackdown.

While MUD has been grappling with internal dissensions that have hindered its leadership efforts, it nevertheless enjoys the backing of an ample sector of the public that is eager for guidance and direction. The leaders of other States are also taking note of the duo's repressive actions, with signs of the possible rise of a continental movement of solidarity with Venezuelans and against the dictatorship.

Dismantling democracy

The Maduro regime is trying to legitimate its rule with tales of plots and coups. It is also trying to keep the sympathies of Latin American states that have benefited from Venezuelan largesse. It wants, in other words, to cash in on the credit extended over the years to the various leftwing governments that have partnered with Venezuela via the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) trade alliance.

Guarding those loyalties is proving easier said than done for Maduro and Cabello, who lack both the aura and resources of their late mentor, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). Some of Venezuela's allies, furthermore, have their own problems to attend to at the moment.

In Ecuador, the proud Rafael Correa, whose authoritarian antics are increasingly making him seem like a local Bonaparte, is busy persecuting critical papers and a dissident cartoonist. In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, facing suspicions over a prosecutor's suspect death. Her vice-president is in court on corruption charges. There is a possibility she too could end up in a courtroom when she steps down after the next elections. With the massive Petrobras scandal, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, though recently reelected, is also under serious pressure at the moment.

Feb. 24 protest against Maduro in San Cristobal — Photo: George Castellanos/Xinhua/ZUMA

The communist style strategy of the São Paulo Forum, which brings together leftist leaders such as Correa, Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Evo Morales (Bolivia), is looking increasing tired. Leaders of this sort come to power with a discourse of hopes and promises, denouncing capitalism and nationalism and supposedly respecting the democratic way. Later, they use their tried and tested — and shameful and shameless — little tricks to attack the institutions that conform democracy, such as press liberties and the separation of powers. After weakening the armed forces and reforming their various constitutions, they lock themselves in power. Democratic changes of government become nearly impossible.

We were warned of the Chavista project's anti-democratic nature. Yet many intellectuals and supposedly progressive elements mocked the warnings. They were exaggerated, they said, or baseless, the fruit of paranoia and anti-communist fantasies. Many governments, in the meantime, were charmed by Venezuela's generous donations .

The democratic world faces a dilemma now: It can quietly sit and observe a gang flatten democratic and liberal institutions, or rise, object and demand that those institutions be restored. The Venezuelan regime wants a forceful encounter to justify repression. The opposition would do better with a mix of mass protests, peaceful resistance, electoral preparations and intensive lobbying to win international solidarity.

Given the incompetence of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the frankly complicit attitude of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, in Spanish), which is run by a Maduro minionVenezuela's friends could also help the cause by forming a counter-grouping to the São Paulo Forum, perhaps something along the lines of a Latin American Forum for Democracy and Freedoms.