Pay attention to Venezuela

Selma. Mexico City. Johannesburg. Tiananmen. Tehran. Kiev. Caracas.

We've seen this movie before. When people are brave enough to stand up for freedom against repressive governments intent on maintaining their grip on power, the process is usually messy - and often bloody. In between ducking batons and dodging bullets, they wait to see if the world cares what happens to them. They're the little guy being beaten by a big guy, hoping that an even bigger guy comes to the rescue.

In Venezuela, for the last few weeks, blood has stained the streets of Caracas and other major cities. It started with massive student protests on Feb. 12 against the social and economic "crisis" plaguing the country - corruption, high crime rates, skyrocketing inflation, etc. - under a government they consider illegitimate. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro responded with violence, as if he were suppressing a coup attempt at all costs.

Former President Hugo Chavez was crazy. But what Maduro is doing - using armed soldiers and plainclothes goons on motorcycles to beat and kill people in order to stifle dissent and keep power - is flat-out criminal. The casualties are young people who look like they're barely old enough to order a drink in a bar. YouTube videos show soldiers chasing down protesters and clubbing them into the ground. College students lie in pools of blood, their heads bashed in.

This is how they roll at the intersection of socialism and fascism. They give people free health care, and then they send them to the hospital.

Where is Sean Penn when we need him? The actor, who used to travel to Caracas to visit his "friend" - the late President Chavez, in what the normally outspoken left-winger seemed to consider a socialist paradise - is missing in action. He must have lost his script. Now that his utopia is killing people, he has nothing to say. Come to think of it, where's the rest of Hollywood on this crisis?

For Venezuelans, at this point, the idea of being rescued by anyone must seem like a distant fantasy. Before you can get liberated, you have to get attention. The country is located in a part of the world - Latin America - that New York media bosses and Washington politicians have traditionally neglected.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted that she should have paid closer attention to the region. I blame geography. From the vantage point of the East Coast, "foreign policy" usually means Europe, Russia and the Middle East. Not Latin America.

Still, it's a heck of a story. Too bad the mainstream U.S. media have been late to cover it. Ironically, newspaper reporters and network correspondents have done a much better job of keeping Americans informed of what is happening many thousands of miles away in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, than they have in monitoring the events unfolding much closer to home in South America.

Besides, the unrest is framed differently. When people rise up against their government in Ukraine, the media call it a revolution and present those stories in a positive light. But when it happens in Venezuela, you are not likely to hear the word "revolution" and you might hear it described as simple unrest.

It all amounts to a crisis in our backyard that President Obama is not up to dealing with. He has been tested like this before, and he failed. Remember the Green Revolution protests in Iran, which began in 2009? Obama's tepid response in the face of repression and bloodshed empowered President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and put the global community on notice that he is not interested in the United States being the world's policeman, let alone its savior.

Whereas Teddy Roosevelt advised speaking softly and carrying a big stick, and other presidents have liked to talk tough and work the levers of diplomacy, Obama prefers to keep quiet.

That's not good enough. The United States is in the freedom business. When people stand up for freedom, we ought to stand with them. And if that means pushing for international sanctions against the Maduro government or imposing an embargo on a valuable commodity like Venezuelan oil, then so be it.

Forgive us, Venezuela. Americans are late to this crisis. But you have our attention now. And if common sense and decency prevail, we'll have your back.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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