By Roger F. Noriega
There are not enough tear gas canisters or bullets in Venezuela to sustain the regime of dictator Nicolás Maduro, which is so cash-strapped it can’t even import food. And although his Cuban and Russian masters are willing to see hungry Venezuelans beaten into submission, the international community is not.
There is an emerging consensus among key nations in the region and among bipartisan leaders in Congress that Venezuelans can resolve this crisis if they are able to choose a new government that will end violent repression, respect democratic institutions and rebuild a free market economy. Urgent action by the administration of President Donald Trump can ensure this outcome.
This past Sunday, more than 7 million Venezuelans — one third of the country’s voters — took part in an opposition “plebiscite,” or unofficial referendum, repudiating the regime’s plan to convene a so-called constituent assembly and destroy the remaining vestiges of democracy and the rule of law.
Voters also overwhelmingly endorsed elections to choose a new government and called on the military to respect the constitution.
Most observers predict that regime cronies in the electoral counsel will rig a July 30 referendum to empower Maduro’s unconstitutional assembly with the aim of dissolving the opposition-controlled National Assembly and placing all power in the hands of the president.
Rather than waiting for this coup de grace, the international community should help the opposition plan a democratic transition that will pick up the pieces when Maduro’s bankrupt dictatorship collapses.
The opposition is already united in demanding the liberation of all political prisoners, respect for the authority of the National Assembly and urgent national elections.
Through the Organization of American States, the United States and key regional countries like Mexico, Brazil and Argentina can reinforce that unity by convening a working session with leaders of the democratic opposition to draft an urgent plan for a democratic transition, internationally supervised elections, humanitarian relief and economic recovery.
The United States and like-minded governments should declare that if Maduro goes forward with his plan to dissolve democracy, they will withdraw their official representatives from Caracas and treat the National Assembly as the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan people.
This ad hoc coalition also should begin building a case at the International Criminal Court against leaders and security officials of the Maduro regime for their systematic use of murder and physical violence against protesters.
The Trump administration should follow up on its February sanctions against Venezuela’s vice president, Tareck El Aissami, with targeted measures to freeze the assets of other individuals who are responsible for repression, drug trafficking and looting public assets.
Washington should share with Latin American and European authorities what it knows about rampant corruption in Venezuela — its state-run oil company is but one example — and press for strong multilateral sanctions.
Treasury officials from these governments should also form a task force responsible for locating, freezing and repatriating the hundreds of billions of dollars stolen from the Venezuelan people by Maduro and his cronies.
This international team can ensure that Venezuela’s transitional government has access to urgent financing to import food and medicine, deal with crushing international debt, and rebuild a collapsed economy and infrastructure.
President Trump can ensure strong domestic support for these measures by working with Sens. Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin to enhance and pass the Venezuela Humanitarian Assistance and Defense of Democratic Governance Act of 2017, which they introduced months ago.
This urgent rescue mission to help a South American neighbor may be a rare opportunity for broad-based international and bipartisan cooperation.
Like-minded democratic allies in the Americas and beyond must not wait for Venezuela’s tragic collapse to deepen further. Nor should they hesitate in telling Russia, China and Cuba to get on the right side of the Venezuelan people or stay out of their way.
ROGER NORIEGA, A FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN STATES AND ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS, IS A VISITING FELLOW AT THE AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE.