ROBERT HARDMAN on the collapse of Venezuela

Inside the hell of ‘communist heaven’: Corpses dug up for jewellery, children jailed and a gangster regime that has looted billions. Read this searing dispatch from a Venezuela on the bring of revolution

Jose Moncon was on the way home from his school for the mentally disabled, clutching nothing more threatening than his colouring book, when a demonstration blocked the road ahead and forced him to take a detour.

Moments later, a police snatch squad coming the other way scooped him up and put him in prison for unspecified crimes against the state.

He is severely epileptic and has the mental age of a ten-year-old. But because Jose is 21 and classed as an adult, he shares an airless cell with 18 other adult men, many of them hardened criminals. As Venezuela is jostling for top spot in the world homicide league, there are plenty of those around here.

President Nicolas Maduro is clinging to power in Venezuala as opposition against his socialist regime increases as a result of the nation’s economic collapse 

President Maduro, pictured addressing troops at Libertador Air Base in Maracay on January 29, has lost the support of people who were loyal to his predecessor Hugo Chavez

Jose’s mother Maria, 44, is distraught as I meet her outside the terrifying Soviet-style ‘Palace of Justice’ in Maracay, a garrison town 60 miles from the capital, Caracas. It is more than a week since her terrified son was taken and his lawyer says the police have no idea how to treat his epileptic fits.

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With her is Rosanna Paz, another mother frantic with worry. Her daughter Ana Paula, 16, was returning from the gym when a snatch squad grabbed her off the street. A week on, Ana Paula is in jail, waiting to hear what crimes she is supposed to have committed.

‘She’s in her last year of high school. She’s never been in any sort of trouble,’ says Rosanna, who had been so proud when Ana Paula was chosen to organise this year’s school prom. Now she has a criminal record for life.

Human rights lawyers here call it ‘human hunting’. They know of more than 75 children aged between 12 and 16 who have been arrested in the past week alone, though there are thought to be many more.

They are a fraction of the total number of people detained for allegedly protesting against a brutal kleptocracy clinging ruthlessly to power as its authority, like its stolen wealth, crumbles by the day.

Most of the free world has finally decided it is time to topple Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Yet a few unreconstructed neo-Trots, including much of Britain’s hard Left, still cling to the myth that Maduro’s narco-gangster regime is some sort of socialist utopia. Only yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn was calling for an end to all outside intervention. Venezuela, he said, simply needs ‘dialogue’.

As far as apologists like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell are concerned, Jose and Ana Paula are not innocent children. They’re part of a huge CIA conspiracy orchestrated by Donald Trump and American oil suits. Throw away the key, comrades!

Yet things are changing here — and fast. In recent days, the U.S. and much of the free world have recognised the country’s new young opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as Venezuela’s legitimate interim head of state.

The U.S. — the main importer of Venezuelan oil — has now imposed a ban on all payments to the state-owned oil company, thus depriving the Maduro regime of 80 per cent of its income.

On top of that, the Bank of England is refusing to return £1 billion of gold bars currently in its vaults, saying Maduro is not their rightful owner. The dictator must now turn to the drug cartels for cash.

So might this be the end of this tragic country’s 20-year experiment with ‘Chavismo’, the bonkers socialist economics of Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chavez?

He was at the airbase to witness a military exercise to show he still has the loyalty of his army

The U.S. — the main importer of Venezuelan oil — has now imposed a ban on all payments to the state-owned oil company, thus depriving the Maduro regime of 80 per cent of its income

We may have a clearer picture this weekend as Venezuela steels itself for mass demonstrations. But like any cornered animal, Maduro is now at his most dangerous. Reprisals could be bloody.

I have spent the past week in a country where graves are routinely ransacked for a corpse’s jewellery; where nurses must choose which premature baby gets the only functioning incubator and which must die; where 10 per cent of the population have fled over the borders with just the clothes on their back; where presidential cronies have looted billions of U.S. dollars from the economy; where inflation is set to hit ten million per cent this year; where parliament has been sidelined by a puppet assembly; where children are arrested on the whim of a Stalinist commissar with a grudge — and all this while sitting on the world’s largest untapped oil reserves.

Petrol is cheaper than water here, but most people can’t afford a car and the average weekly wage is £1.50 — barely enough for a couple of eggs.

I meet a group of cowed but angry residents of El Junquito, one of the poorest slum districts or barrios in Caracas. The capital is surrounded by these shanty cities, clinging to near-vertical hillsides amid unrelenting squalor.

I ask them what they would say to Corbynista supporters of the Maduro regime. ‘These people are just playing politics with our poverty,’ says Omaira, 27, a mother of two, as she shows me a grotesque mobile phone image of a local teenager shot dead by the National Guard during last week’s protests.

We are joined by two of her neighbours, Jose, 21, and Jesus, 19. Both have a hunted look — the two men took part in the recent protests and live in fear of being denounced by the collectivos, the regime spies who permeate every community. Yet there is a palpable spirit of revolution in the air. ‘We feel it is now or never,’ says Jesus.

The latest turmoil began with last year’s presidential elections. Maduro won by a landslide — although millions boycotted the poll

The latest turmoil began with last year’s presidential elections. Maduro won by a landslide — although millions boycotted the poll.

Many nations — including, crucially, almost every other South American state — rejected the result. When the new presidential term of office began on January 10, most of the world ignored Maduro’s inauguration ceremony.

Opposition politicians invoked the Venezuelan constitution. It states that, in the absence of a legitimate president, the speaker of the national parliament becomes acting head of state. Step forward the current incumbent, Juan Guaido, an earnest 35-year-old former engineer and social democrat MP.

Standing in a city square, he duly proclaimed himself acting president before disappearing on the back of the motorbike that has been at his side ever since. He was swiftly endorsed by the U.S., Canada and most of South America.

Many European nations, including the UK, have given Maduro until tomorrow to announce fresh elections or they will follow suit.

Needless to say, Maduro has angrily denounced this upstart, pointing to all those honest countries that have endorsed him, namely Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Turkey, plus terror movements including Hezbollah and Hamas. Sinn Fein, it should be noted, proudly sent a delegation to his inauguration.

Many European nations, including the UK, have given Maduro until tomorrow to announce fresh elections or they will follow suit and endorse the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president

When Guaido called for demonstrations against the regime last week, Maduro’s response was brutal. We can expect more of the same today at marches across the country. Most embassies have repatriated all but essential staff. Foreign journalists are being arrested.

No one seriously believes Maduro’s promise of a new ‘Vietnam’ against the ‘Yankee’ imperialists, any more than they expect Donald Trump to invade. But those with cars are filling their tanks and those without are pouring Molotov cocktails.

Violent protest has been part of Venezuelan life for years, but now it has spread from the city centre to those slums that once adored Chavez and Maduro.

The daily struggle to exist here defies belief. Water and electricity come and go at random. In the countryside, people have had neither for months. Banknotes are almost worthless. Last year alone, Maduro lopped five zeros off Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, in a vain attempt to stabilise prices.

Yet it is so often the small things that tell the big picture. On my last visit here, I was struck by the dismal scenes in Caracas’s zoo, where many animals had been eaten by the locals. One survivor was a lone elephant with a huge weeping sore. I was going to look her up this week, until I heard she starved to death last summer.

No one seriously believes Maduro’s promise of a new ‘Vietnam’ against the ‘Yankee’ imperialists, any more than they expect Donald Trump to invade. But those with cars are filling their tanks and those without are pouring Molotov cocktails

The abiding image from this visit will be one of the city’s main cemeteries. Almost every grave has been torn open in the quest for bodies buried with jewellery (a skull can also fetch a few bolivars from followers of a voodoo cult).

One tomb is daubed with a furious message in red paint: ‘Cursed be those who dig out our dead. I will kill the one I catch.’ The lid of the tomb has been smashed open regardless.

My guide urges me to leave. The cemetery is overlooked by a famously violent barrio from which gangs prey on isolated mourners.

His own mother, Josefina, was attacked last year while visiting her father’s grave. A robber demanded her wedding ring. When it wouldn’t budge, he tried to bite off her finger until his saliva miraculously loosened the ring.

It is the stuff of horror films — but everything about Venezuela is surreal, even getting here. In the boom days, you could fly from Caracas to Paris by Concorde. These days, the few airlines still operating all stop in neighbouring countries to change crew. Cabin staff refuse to stay overnight in Venezuela, as it is too dangerous.

It’s not great for passenger morale to see all your flight attendants abandon ship in this way (and there is no one to complain to when your luggage vanishes, as mine did).

What next? It all hinges on the military. Hugo Chavez was a soldier. Portly 56-year-old Maduro, however, is an ex-bus driver. For now, the armed forces are on his side. He has made his senior generals dollar millionaires. But how long will the troops endure meagre pay and rations?

I am keen to track down Juan Guaido, the man who claims he can sort all this out. Understandably, he is hard to pin down. On Thursday, police raided his house (he wasn’t there), while Maduro has frozen his assets and banned him from getting on a plane.

I find him making a surprise visit to a hospital, where medical staff have given him a white coat covered with handwritten messages — ‘Save Our Nation’ and the like.

He seems almost bashful. Charismatic he is not. But he is friendly and clearly brave.

I introduce myself and he smiles broadly at the mention of the UK and shakes my hand.

‘I just had an amiable conversation with your Foreign Secretary,’ he says, adding his thanks to the British people. And with that, he jumps on the motorbike and is off via a side road, avoiding the riot police at the main gate.

What next? It all hinges on the military. Hugo Chavez was a soldier. Portly 56-year-old Maduro, however, is an ex-bus driver. For now, the armed forces are on his side. He has made his senior generals dollar millionaires. But how long will the troops endure meagre pay and rations?

I drop in at the offices of Alfredo Romero’s law firm. Educated at Harvard and the London School of Economics, he is a law professor and director of Foro Penal, the charity that defends political prisoners. Last weekend, so many detainees packed the main justice building in Caracas, he was in court until 3am and emerged to find a wheel missing from his car.

Over the years, Romero, 50, has helped defend more than 14,000 victims of ‘Chavismo’ but says there has been a major change in recent days. ‘The police are now breaking into homes to arrest people and almost all of them are from the poorest areas,’ he says. ‘The other big change is that they are detaining children.’

Romero says he has no time for ideology. ‘I am not Left or Right. It’s just about natural justice.’ By rights, he should be a darling of global bien pensant society — an award-winning and genuine human rights lawyer (not some huckster chasing British Army veterans).

Juan Guaido, pictured at a rally in Caracas on January 26, has to keep details of his movements confidential as he is likely to be arrested following a raid by police this week on his house

Yet to the British Left, he and his ilk are in cahoots with evil Trump. Does he care? He laughs. ‘They are just ignorant hypocrites.’

I hear the same thing from one of the country’s best-known opposition figures still at large. ‘It’s very sad that Left-wing politicians don’t understand the magnitude of our problems,’ says Maria Corina Machado, an MP who has been subject to a travel ban for the past five years. She has been attacked many times and once had her nose broken in five places by a Maduro crony inside the parliamentary chamber.

She believes this week’s events have been a game-changer. ‘The international coalition is getting broader by the day and this is no ordinary dictatorship. There is no ideology,’ she says. ‘It’s a criminal state and when a criminal state runs out of money, it collapses.’

Few expect change to be swift. The likeliest scenario, say Western analysts, is that moderate Chavismo elements will begin furtive talks with the opposition and cracks will start to appear — then Western governments stand ready to bombard the country not with weapons but with humanitarian aid.

Venezuela is not an Iraq or Libya, where the demise of the strong man allowed anarchy to fill the power vacuum. It thrived as a democracy before and can do so again — with our support.

Just don’t expect Her Majesty’s Opposition to help.

For nothing, surely, proves the moral inadequacy of our hard Left as eloquently as its bovine insistence that we should stand back and leave Maduro and his fraudsters to plunder what is left of their ruined state.

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