As desperate Venezuelans lose their fear and take their battle to the streets against a brutal regime, it is clear that U.S. policy makers miscalculated tragically by favoring stability over democracy in the past 18 months. That policy must be overhauled now, so the United States can help avert a bloody disaster.
The Trump administration already has taken some halting steps in the right direction. An Oval Office meeting with the wife of a jailed opposition leader, Leopoldo López, and a subsequent Twitter message by President Trump gave hope to the vast majority of Venezuelans who oppose the anti-democratic regime of Nicolás Maduro. Soon after taking office, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lifted his Department’s objections to sanctions targeting the regime’s corrupt leadership. However, it is not clear that the Trump administration has set objectives for its Venezuela policy or put a team in place to reach them.
By favoring stability over democracy, the Obama administration made matters worse by emboldening the regime and forfeiting an electoral solution. Even after the Maduro regime defied the opposition’s landslide victory in National Assembly elections in 2015, blocked a recall referendum and regional elections in 2016, and was accused of narcotrafficking by U.S. prosecutors, Obama’s State Department blocked sanctions and backed a national dialogue on Maduro’s terms.
Opponents of U.S. sanctions against drug kingpins in the regime argued that they would help Maduro rally Venezuelan nationalism and stir up regional aversion to U.S. meddling. The dialogue between the opposition and a recalcitrant regime was used to stall efforts by the Organization of American States (OAS) to hold Maduro accountable to commitments under the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Those arguments were put to the test in February when the U.S. Treasury Department levied sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami and one of his reputed bagmen. The move freezes El Aissami’s ill-gotten assets, denies his criminal network access to the U.S. financial system, and further delegitimizes the Maduro regime.
Far from buttressing the regime, the U.S. decision delegitimized it as a narcostate, sowed doubts among rivals in the ruling party, and signaled that the United States is prepared to act. When hardliners in Caracas sought to consolidate their position by using the Supreme Court to dissolve the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Latin American leaders broke their silence and condemned the power grab. Even after Maduro reversed that measure, a clear majority of OAS members — led by Mexico, Canada, Argentina, and Chile —approved a resolution invoking the Democratic Charter, denouncing the rupture in democratic order, and endorsing an electoral solution.
The regime in Caracas has never been more isolated. As unrest spreads, the government has deployed security forces, militias, and gangs — trained and armed by Cuba and Russia — to attack protesters.
The international community cannot ignore a mounting body count. The OAS should engage UN human rights agencies and the International Criminal Court to prepare cases that can be brought against the political leadership and security commanders who use violence against the civilian population. Regional governments should send an unambiguous message to Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López and all other members of the security forces that they will be held responsible for the human rights abuses being committed on their watch.
The inter-American community also must tell Cuban authorities that the commanding role that their security and intelligence agencies play in Venezuela today make them complicit in any violent repression. The Russian government must be told that it will be held responsible if the rifles, land mines, and surface-to-air missiles reportedly deployed in recent months are used against civilians or fall into the wrong hands. And the Chinese must know that they must stop bankrolling Maduro’s illegitimate regime.
A resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced recently by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is evidence of broad bipartisan support for U.S. sanctions, backing up multilateral efforts to promote a urgent elections in Venezuela. The Trump administration has played a supportive role in recent OAS actions, but much more can be done. Additional U.S. sanctions and indictments should be brought against Maduro and others, particularly Diosdado Cabello, a reputed narco kingpin who bragged publicly that thousands of Russian weapons were “ready for combat” against opponents.
Finally, it must be made clear that U.S. policy is in the hands of people who are committed to a vigorous defense of democracy and human rights. Those U.S. diplomats who stalled OAS action, promoted a phony dialogue, and deceived the opposition have no credibility with the Venezuelan people.
Roger F. Noriega was U.S. Ambassador to the OAS and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2001-05. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and his firm Visión Américas LLC represents U.S. and foreign clients.