Antonio Ledezma is an outspoken critic of President Nicolas Maduro’s regime in Venezuela and was recently ousted as mayor of Caracas following two years of house arrest on charges of conspiracy against the government. He fled to Spain last Friday and is now on a tour of Washington, D.C.’s political corridors, lending credence to the idea that the United States is taking more of an interest in what has become “a crisis, humanitarian and political, that is reaching new proportions.”
The nation he left is a shadow of its former self. Venezuela is one of the top oil producers in OPEC and as recently as 2011 topped Saudi Arabia as having the largest proven reserves among members of the cartel. Now Ledezma, like other exiles, laments chronic food shortages and empty shelves in once gleaming supermarkets, and often nonexistent basic medical supplies and services.
Maduro has said his country’s economic problems are not the result of bad policy or a failure of the Chavista socialist model, but rather the outcome of U.S. sanctions and an “economic war” waged by Venezuela’s remaining business elite. The Venezuelan leader has also refused to roll back government controls enacted during the Chavez years.
Now free to travel, Ledezma visited Washington this week to meet with the head of the Organization of American States, give speeches at think tanks, and make media appearances in a bid to call attention to the plight of a nation he said is being held hostage.
“That is my role, to be one more of these wave of Venezuelans who had to flee Venezuela and seek refuge in other parts of the world because they feel persecuted politically in the country or because they simply feel that to stay in Venezuela is to wait to be shot in the head,” he said. “Or at the very least die of hunger,” he added, referring to rising malnutrition and low wages.
Ledezma’s presence in D.C.’s power-adjacent circles signals a growing interest in what’s happening in the South American country, a nation Florida Senator Marco Rubio has referred to as a “lost democracy”.
News came just this week of Maduro’s decision to turn the state’s oil sector over to the military — specifically to Major General Manuel Quevedo, a general and housing minister with a decided lack of experience in the energy sector — while a decree censoring social media criticism of the regime came earlier this month.
The rapid and repeated moves to clamp down on any critique of the regime has some wondering if Maduro — beset by global debt he blames on sanctions imposed by the U.S. — is beginning to lose his grip on power (a possible explanation for appointing military generals to run the energy sector).
Ledezma says Venezuela’s economic woes will never be adequately addressed as long as Maduro remains in the highest office. He says any potential wealth the nation has due to oil production is immediately siphoned off to Cuba.
“Venezuela is the only country with a government that is paying so that it can be invaded. Venezuela is financing the Cuban regime, handing over oil money that we need for food and medicine that are scarce now,” Ledezma said in an interview Wednesday with the VOA Spanish Service. “We have told the international community it needs to be vigilant of what is happening in Venezuela because its people have been taken hostage.”
Ledezma joins the estimated one million Venezuelans that have fled the country starting in the 1990s.