Not all Venezuelans are smiling.

Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela Sues the Messenger

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro can't catch a break.

When a 54-year-old woman from northern Venezuela, desperate to own her own home, scrawled a message on a mango and flung it at Maduro's head in late April, she inspired scores of copycats, a send-up by John Oliver and a smartphone game app, Maduro Mango Attack, which has been downloaded at least 100,000 times.

In his prime, the late Hugo Chavez might have grabbed a microphone and whipped up morale with some of his patented Bolivarian blunderbuss, but Maduro inspires mostly derision.

Two of three Venezuelans say the stumbling heir to Chavez's revolution for "21st-Century socialism" is doing a lousy job, and now U.S. authorities have named Maduro's right-hand companero, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, as a leading suspect in a Venezuela-based global drug trafficking hub.

Inflation is speeding to 200 percent this year, foreign reserves are vanishing, and the World Bank says the economy will shrink by 7 percent.

The government's response to all the bad news? Sue the messenger. Last week, the Venezuelan courts issued a travel ban on 22 prominent journalists Cabello named in a defamation suit. Their offense: relaying the story by Spanish paper ABC about a former top Venezuelan security agent who defected in January and is cooperating with U.S. authorities to probe Venezuelan higher-ups for human rights violations and drug trafficking.

The official backlash is no surprise. There may be little love lost between Maduro and Cabello -- a military man who served under Chavez and always angled to succeed him -- but both know a boligarch in trouble is bad news for the brand. "Whoever messes with Cabello messes with me," Maduro said in a radio broadcast Tuesday.

In his drive to centralize power, Chavez had always taken care to cow critics by stacking the courts  -- including adding 12 seats to the Supreme Court -- while shutting down whatever media he couldn't bully or buy out.

In a review of 45,000 cases the Supreme Court heard between 2003 and 2014, four Venezuelan attorneys found that the government had never lost.

That one of the court's current targets is former Marxist guerrilla Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the independent weekly Tal Cual, and a lifelong leftist, is testament to how far Chavez's socialist revolution has strayed. Barred from flying to Madrid this week to collect the Ortega y Gasset journalism award, the top prize in Spanish-speaking journalism, Petkoff was represented by former Spanish president Felipe Gonzalez -- another mango for Maduro.

After 16 years of Chavismo, it's a wonder there are any media screws left to tighten. Freedom House, an international watchdog, recently rated Venezuela the hemisphere's worst country for journalism after Cuba.  

And as Chavismo goes, so goes the rest of the Bolivarian alliance. Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua -- Venezuela's fastest allies -- have long taken their cues from Caracas and even added some authoritarian flourishes of their own.

Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, recently deployed a volunteer force of cyber trolls to counter unflattering Internet memes. "You won," said a local satirist after anonymous death threats led him to take down a wildly popular Facebook page, Crudo Ecuador, which regularly lampooned the Andean strongman.

This in a country where a new government-sponsored Media Law and its heavy-handed oversight committee -- Supercom -- already have filed more than 100 complaints against independent journalists.

Though not a formal Bolivarian ally, Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has closely followed Chavismo's script. Fernandez not only battled to bust up Grupo Clarin, the country's largest private media group and her frequent critic, she also tried (but failed) to seize the country's sole newsprint maker, and took over broadcasts of all soccer matches, allowing her to beam government propaganda to a captive audience.

Although free and mostly fair elections are the norm throughout the region, Freedom House's latest map on press freedom paints Latin America almost solid yellow (partly free) or purple (unfree). 

Since the U.S. case against Cabello has just begun, more bad news may be unfolding. Whether Venezuelans will ever hear about it from their own media is another matter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net