Inside the hell of 'communist heaven': ROBERT HARDMAN on the collapse of ...

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 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

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 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

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

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

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

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