Venezuelan President Nicholás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have been pointing to the U.S. as the boogeyman to unite Venezuela under their single-party rule for years. As Venezuela’s economy has begun an accelerating slide toward collapse, not only have the government’s repressive measures to try to keep a lid on the collapse (as well as deflect blame) intensified, but the conspiracy theories about the U.S. working to topple the Maduro regime have gotten more strident, and official actions against Americans in the country are on the rise.

Maduro announced that the number of American personnel allowed at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas was going to be reduced, though exact numbers have not been given. Furthermore, Americans will now require visas, at a charge of $160, to enter the country.

These may be modest changes; the visa charges are the same faced by Venezuelans seeking to enter the United States. But some of the the Venezuelan government’s actions are much more bellicose. Maduro announced at the same press conference that Venezuelan authorities had detained several (again, no numbers forthcoming) Americans for “espionage and recruiting.” He also said an American pilot was arrested in the southwestern border state of Táchira, with “all kinds of documentation.” Again, no details were given.

Reuters reports that members of an evangelical missionary group working in the coastal city of Ocumare de la Costa were detained and questioned extensively by Venezuelan authorities, who accused them of spying. They had been involved in a medical assistance operation. They have since left the country for Aruba.

Accusations of Americans attempting to destabilize Venezuela (usually without any supporting evidence given) have been quite common in Venezuela for years, ever since a 2002 coup temporarily overthrew Hugo Chavez. The U.S. government has categorically denied all allegations, and the opponents of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela have generally perceived the accusations as a smokescreen for the repression and economic devastation that the Chavismo ideology has inflicted on the country. Of course, there is enough history of American covert involvement in South America, often with unsavory results, that the doubt can still linger.

The timing of the latest set of accusations fits with the opposition’s theories, however. Maduro’s actions have become more and more like a purge, as the government lashes out at business owners for “creating shortages” when Chavez’ policies have made the country so dependent on foreign exports that there simply is not enough supply, given the loss of oil revenue to pay for it. The arrests have increased. On February 19, the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was arrested. Julio Borges, a moderate opposition leader, was expelled from the National Assembly, not the first to be treated so. Another opposition politician, Leopoldo López, has been in prison for a year, and is now facing trial.  The most common charge, one being leveled against almost half of the opposition mayors in the country, is of colluding with the United States to overthrow the government.

Hugo Chavez initiated a major military buildup, ostensibly to defend against an invasion by the United States. As the situation in Venezuela slides further and further out of Maduro’s control and desperation begins to set in, his actions may well become more hostile. It is a situation that greatly bears watching.

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