In fragile economy, Venezuela arrests opposition figures: Why you should care

Venezuela arrests mayor of Caracas
Venezuela arrests mayor of Caracas

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(CNN)Imagine what would happen if the U.S. president accused a big-city mayor who opposed him politically of plotting to overthrow the government -- and then federal agents arrested the mayor.

Something just like that is unfolding in oil-rich Venezuela. That country supplies more crude oil to the United States than all but two other nations, but its economy is so shaky that some people stand in line for hours just to buy milk and chicken.
Critics say the Venezuelan government arrested the mayor to deflect attention from that sputtering economy. The President says the mayor was involved in a plot to overthrow the government.
Not up to speed on the ins and outs of Venezuelans politics?
Let these nine questions get you up to speed about what's going on in Venezuela -- and why it may matter beyond South America.
1. Who is Antonio Ledezma and why does his arrest matter?
Imagine President Obama accused Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, of trying to overthrow the government and soon afterward de Blasio was arrested by federal agents. That's what appears to have happened in Venezuela.
Antonio Ledezma is the mayor of Caracas, the capital and Venezuela's largest city with a population of 2.1 million. He was elected to office in 2009. Ledezma is known throughout the South American country for being a very vocal opposition leader. In 2009, he staged a hunger strike to protest the political tactics of then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist who died in 2012 and who handpicked President Nicolas Maduro as his successor before his death.
2. Why was Mayor Ledezma arrested?
Depends who you ask. Speaking to supporters Thursday night during a public event at the Miraflores Presidential Palace broadcast nationally, President Nicolás Maduro says the mayor was captured by order of the Attorney General's office. He will be prosecuted, Maduro says, "so that he answers for all of the crimes committed against the peace, security and constitution of our country." Maduro accused the mayor of involvement in a plot to overthrow his government last week.
The opposition says this is the government's latest attempt to create controversy and target political opponents to deflect attention from Venezuela's economic problems. Omar Estacio, Ledezma's attorney, says his client was "virtually kidnapped," calling the detention "a violation of the most fundamental principles of Venezuelan and international law."
3. Why is Ledezma's arrest sparking such a fierce outcry?
Beyond the obvious, the opposition is also angry about the way he was arrested. Ledezma's wife told CNN en Español her husband's arrest seemed like a military operation. "They destroyed the doors," Capriles says. "There was no room for mediation. (My husband) was asking them to please stay calm and was asking what was going on."
Richard Blanco, an opposition member of the Venezuelan National Assembly, says Ledezma was pushed, shoved and beaten by the intelligence agents executing the arrest. According to Blanco, who says he witnessed the incident, the operation to arrest Ledezma involved as many as 150 agents belonging to SEBIN, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service of Venezuela.
4. Is he the only opposition leader arrested?
Not by any means. Ledezma is only the latest in a long list of opposition leaders, including mayors, judges and legislators in Venezuela who have been in trouble with the socialist government. The most prominent on the list is, perhaps, Leopoldo Lopez. The former mayor and presidential candidate has been in jail for more than one year accused of inciting last year's anti-government protests that left 43 people dead and 878 injured, according to government figures. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and former U.S. President Bill Clinton have called for his release.
5. Why should the United States care?
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Venezuela contains some of the largest oil and natural gas proven reserves in the world. In 2013, Venezuela was the third-largest exporter of crude oil to the United States. It consistently ranks as one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the United States." Need I say more?
6. But, shouldn't the United States stay away from Venezuelan politics?
Maybe, but the problem is that the Venezuelan President himself has repeatedly accused the U.S. of wrongdoing. For starters, the President claimed Thursday night the United States had its hand in a plot involving an opposition coup that included plans to attack the presidential palace with a military jet. The President has made similar accusations about U.S. infiltration in the past.
Maduro's accusations spurred a sharp response from the U.S. State Department. Spokesman Jen Psaki called them "baseless and false."
"Venezuela's economic and political problems are the result of the policies of the Venezuelan government. The Venezuelan government should stop attempting to distract attention from the country's economic and political problems and focus on finding real solutions through democratic dialogue among Venezuelans."
7. What kind of economic problems are we talking about?
It's a long list. Regular Venezuelans have endured years of shortages of basic goods, products and services. Consumers have to stand in line for hours for the chance to buy food staples like milk, chicken and cornmeal. Even toilet paper is scarce. More recently, a shortage of condoms made headlines. This is not funny! This specific shortage deeply concerns public health experts due to high teen pregnancy and HIV rates in Venezuela.
Venezuela's currency, the Bolivar, is overvalued. The official exchange rate is 6.3 per dollar, but dollars are being exchanged in the black market at 190-to-1 creating all kinds of problems for foreign companies, including American ones.
For years, the government subsidized large welfare programs and gas prices using oil revenues. But the recent collapse of crude oil prices has worsened the situation. It's estimated that, to break even, Venezuela needs to sell a barrel of oil for $120. The current price is around $50.
8. So what does the opposition want?
In one word: change. Opposition leaders say Ledezma's arrest is the government's latest attempt to manufacture controversy and target political opponents. They say the socialist policies espoused by the government of President Nicolas Maduro are ruining the country and scaring away foreign companies and investment.
9. Are foreign companies truly leaving Venezuela?
Yes. From the time the late President Hugo Chavez was in power, the government not only drove away, but also expropriated foreign companies. Exxon Mobil won a $1.6 billion lawsuit over the nationalization of its Cerro Negro Project. Airlines have also been affected. According to the International Air Transport Association, Venezuela owes foreign airlines $3.6 billion. Air Canada has stopped flying to Venezuela altogether and many other airlines have reduced their frequency of flights to Caracas and other Venezuelan cities.