Taking a page out of Chávez's playbook, Maduro has accused the country's opposition, which he calls fascist and counterrevolutionary, of plotting to assassinate him and the head of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. Anything that goes wrong, it seems, is due to nefarious outside influence.
A massive power outage on Sept. 3 was the result of saboteurs, as was last year's explosion at the Amuay refinery that claimed 47 lives, Maduro claims, saying that the incidents are aimed at undermining his rule. (In the latter case, the government says that saboteurs loosened bolts on a pipeline connecting a fuel tank to its feed. However, the state oil company's own unions, which supposedly are Chávista, said the explosion was due to lack of maintenance and investment in safety devices. The state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, has also acted somewhat suspiciously: It hasn't filed an insurance claim, as that would mean the insurance company would send investigators, and it seems leery about letting anyone from the outside into the refinery.) The government has made no arrests in either incident.
"He wants to divert people's attention from domestic issues, such as the economy and crime," says Yorde, the political consultant. "The National Assembly opens its fall session on Sept. 15, and I am sure we're going to see a witch hunt take place against the opposition as part of the anti-corruption drive." Yorde says the government has also moved to quell the almost daily protests and criticism by stifling the media. The country's last remaining television station that backed the opposition -- Globovision -- was purchased by government backers, who immediately changed its format. After Maduro publicly complained that the station was still anti-government, the new owners again tinkered with its format, leading to an exodus of reporters and commentators.
"The government and its supporters have also bought up regional newspapers or taken out massive publicity in them to control the news that is being reported," says Yorde. "They are also using currency controls to regulate what newspapers get newsprint." The effect, analysts say, is to control what news is being reported and to stifle the possibility of nationwide demonstrations if a local protest broke out.
"Repression is too strong of a term as I don't see violence on the horizon," says Smilde, the scholar at the Washington Office on Latin America. "What is clear is that the Maduro government is reducing spaces for the opposition." But as the economy crumbles, that may not be enough. Years of exchange and price controls have distorted the economy, leading to rampant inflation as shortages mount. Twelve-month trailing inflation through August was 45 percent, the highest in the Western Hemisphere. The currency, the strong bolívar, continues to plummet as the government has curtailed access to dollars to protect falling international reserves. Although the government has fixed the bolívar's value at 6.3 to the dollar, the black market rate is 42 to the dollar. And if oil prices were to fall, Venezuela's economic day of reckoning could occur even earlier: Venezuela derives 90 percent of its hard-currency earnings from oil sales.
"In countries that have a lot of oil, high prices can pave over a lot of problems," says Susan Purcell, director of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy.
Given the stakes, December's municipal elections are widely seen as being a referendum on Maduro. Fears that the vote could be postponed or canceled have largely faded. In contrast to the opposition, which held primaries to determine its candidates, Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) handpicked their standard-bearers, including several actors and sports figures, which alienated many rank-and-file members.
"I think the opposition is going to win the big cities, and the PSUV the rural districts," says Yorde. "It will depend on the abstention rate."
If the PSUV loses urban centers, Maduro's erstwhile comrades in his own party may seek to ease him from office. "When you have an autocratic state like Venezuela, members of the elite will often unseat the president to protect their vested interests," says Purcell. "Maduro has the problem of being highly incompetent and paranoid. He's no Hugo Chávez."
Yorde agrees, saying that Venezuela may be headed toward a Russia-style democracy, with the ambitious and powerful Cabello, a former military officer, the kingmaker who wants to become king.
But for Castillo, the homemaker back in La Victoria, her main concern is finding milk, not whether Cabello is Venezuela's new Vladimir Putin, waiting for his moment.
"I am tired of this revolution and the constant drama," she says, adding that she is going to vote for the opposition for the first time in 14 years. "I think it's time to give them a chance to do better.
"They can't do any worse."