Observers say Venezuela’s security situation is spiraling “absolutely out of control” as socialist President Nicolas Maduro continues to crack down on pro-democracy protesters who have taken to the streets to demand that he resign.
Protests in Venezuela entered their sixth day on Monday with students and other demonstrators braving violent attacks from state police and pro-Maduro militias, according to former and current U.S. officials.
Maduro has even employed Iranian-style paramilitary Basij militias in a bid to quell the violence, according to Roger Noriega, a former United States ambassador and assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs.
“They’ve used it to control the population and pretend this is not the state [using violence], but a confrontation between protesters,” he explained. “The reality is in addition to those motorized forces, they have militias and hundreds of thousands of people with arms. The security situation is absolutely out of control.”
The Obama administration remained silent about the violence until Saturday, when Secretary of State John Kerry cautiously called for “calm.”
“We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protesters,” Kerry said in a statement on Saturday, after having avoided public comment for days. “We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.”
As the protests grow, current and former U.S. government officials slammed the Obama administration for being overly cautious and afraid to take on Venezuela’s socialist government, which expelled three U.S. diplomats from the country late Sunday.
“They’re afraid of offending our enemies and afraid of taking any sort of principled position in defense of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful protests,” Noriega said.
“That shows you the length to which American diplomacy has sunk,” Noriega said. “The U.S. needs to show leadership here.”
Protestors have already been shot with pellets, tear gas, and other weapons by government-backed police, who have become increasingly violent since Maduro banned street demonstrations and ordered a widespread media blackout.
Maduro has remained defiant, refusing to step down and claiming protestors are attempting to start a coup.
With at least three people dead and Maduro’s socialist government desperately trying to hold power, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) questioned the Obama administration’s approach.
“It’s remarkable that this administration and Congress have not paid more attention to what’s going on in our own backyard,” DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, said.
“We’re all over the world it seems trying to help people who are fighting for freedom and we see, like we’ve started to see in Venezuela, some of the people stand up for a more democratic, free society,” DeMint said. “The United States is not only not doing anything about it—we’re not even talking about it.”
Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said that he would continue to highlight Maduro’s “brutalities.”
“With massive shortages, crushing inflation, and regular blackouts, I sympathize with peaceful protestors and condemn the violence we are seeing in Venezuela,” Salmon told the Free Beacon. “We have seen a deterioration of the Venezuelan economy, democratic principles, and an increased use of cowardly intimidation tactics against individuals who dare to speak out against authoritarianism.”
“I will continue to shed light on the brutalities of the Venezuelan regime that threaten to undermine democratic values throughout the Western Hemisphere,” Salmon said.
Maduro has blamed the unrest on opposition leaders who he claimed were financed by the United States to destabilize the country. Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the Popular Will party and one of the main organizers of nationwide protests in recent weeks, reportedly faces arrest in what activists fear is a widening government crackdown on the opposition.
Dozens of people have been seriously wounded or detained during protests in the last two days. Demonstrators accuse Maduro’s government of abetting rampant crime, a 56 percent inflation rate, and an assault on political freedoms.
Press advocates said many local TV stations declined to cover the protests in fear of a government backlash. Laws in Venezuela heavily restrict what can be shown on the air, and the government’s National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) is notorious for imposing substantial fines on opposition broadcasters and revoking their licenses.
One of the few stations covering Wednesday’s protests, Colombia’s NTN24, was taken off the air.
William Castillo, CONATEL president, tweeted on Thursday that NTN24 was an “unacceptable foreign channel to promote violence.”
As pro-Maduro lawmakers referred to the demonstrators as “fascist hordes,” Venezuelans were likely to only see scenes of the protests on YouTube. Videos posted in the past two days appeared to show police shooting at students and beating protesters.
Maduro won the presidential elections last April to replace Hugo Chavez, the strongman who died of cancer in March. Nine people died and hundreds were injured amid protests that the vote was rigged.