This week in Venezuela, the corrupt regime of Nicolas Maduro is unveiling a “constituent assembly” comprised of 545 of his fanatical followers, which will dissolve all of the country’s institutions and write a constitution establishing one-party rule. By eliminating the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Maduro hopes to consolidate absolute power in the hands of his Socialist Party. This brazen power grab, micromanaged by Cuban advisers hoping to make a dictatorship in Venezuela to match their own, may backfire on Maduro – if the United States and key allies keep the pressure on his decrepit regime.
Maduro’s constituent assembly was born illegitimate. Maduro’s own attorney general, Luisa Ortega, declared the maneuver to be an unconstitutional contrivance. Even the insider firm that helped conduct the election of the new assembly accused the regime of inflating the results. Ortega and other Socialist Party leaders who claim to be loyal to the legacy of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, also have denounced the violent repression that has taken the lives of 120 Venezuelans protesting the lack of food and freedom. Even in poor neighborhoods where Chavez was most popular, protesters blame Maduro for the dire shortage of food and medicine and demand national elections to choose his replacement.
In mid-July, President Donald Trump promised “strong and swift economic actions” to counter Maduro’s antidemocratic measures. On Monday, the Treasury Department issued an order freezing any assets Maduro may have in the United States or in dollar-denominated accounts anywhere in the world. Maduro’s vice president, Tareck El Aissami, was similarly sanctioned in February for his involvement in drug trafficking and related crimes. National security adviser H.R. McMaster read a powerful statement declaring, “Maduro is not just a bad leader; he is now a dictator.”
Trump is reportedly considering steps to restrict the revenue the Maduro regime accrues from oil sales to the United States. He also might impose additional targeted sanctions on other leaders – including Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López and reputed narco kingpin Diosdado Cabello, who is the president of the National Assembly. Mexico and Colombia have decided to freeze assets of the individuals previously cited by U.S. authorities, and other governments may follow suit. Revoking visas or restricting trade could also be considered.
However, sanctions are only a tactic. In response to Maduro’s illegal and undemocratic measures, the United States should adopt a forward-looking strategy aimed at promoting an urgent democratic transition, including elections, humanitarian relief and the economic recovery of Venezuela. This effort begins with vigorous diplomacy encouraging other key governments to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro, the constituent assembly, or any regional elections held under the current corrupt leadership. These governments should instead engage the opposition-controlled National Assembly and several elected governors as the bona fide representatives of the Venezuelan people.
It is not too early to begin planning for a post-Maduro transition. Under the auspices of the Organization of American States in Washington, like-minded countries should convene planning sessions bringing democratic opposition representatives together with donor countries, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These sessions could coordinate multilateral support for a post-Maduro political transition and economic reconstruction. One of the important tasks for this group of governments would be to launch an international campaign to locate and confiscate assets stolen by Maduro and his cronies to return them to a democratic successor government to support Venezuela’s recovery.
These governments also should engage the U.N. Security Council to prepare for the serious security challenges brewing in Venezuela, including a potential refugee crisis, the vast inventory of Russian weapons distributed by the regime and the international criminal and terror networks operating there.
In order to stabilize the internal situation and set the country on a course for democratic change, the international community should send coordinated messages to key protagonists. All political parties should know that friendly nations support a peaceful, democratic and inclusive transition, with the goal of national reconciliation. The military should be urged to defend the Venezuelan people and their constitution. The Russian and Cuban governments should be informed that they will be held accountable for their reckless support for violent repression.
At a time when there is very little consensus on many public policy issues in Washington, the Trump administration can count on a strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for a democratic transition in Venezuela. Both the House and Senate have legislation pending that would commit the U.S. government as a whole to a comprehensive strategy for achieving that worthy objective.
Attaining this sort of bipartisan Congressional backing would endorse the president’s decision to apply more effective sanctions, bolster diplomatic efforts and demonstrate that a democratic transition in Venezuela is a priority for all Americans.