As a popular uprising in Venezuela enters its second week, opposition leaders, regional diplomats, United States policymakers, and the country’s deeply-divided security forces can help rescue the country from the doomed regime of Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro is weaker than ever. One reason is that unrest has spread to the poorest neighborhoods that were once the stronghold of Hugo Chávez. The most ferocious street fights have been in poor areas, where well-armed pro-regime militants, called “colectivos,” used hit-and-run tactics to terrorize the population. After uniformed police and guardsmen fired tear gas and rubber bullets indiscriminately, in numerous cases demonstrators have overwhelmed security forces and chased them through the streets. Opposition leaders may have convened these demonstrations, but they are hardly in a position to control desperate people with little to lose.
Venezuela’s democratic opposition is more united than ever behind a list of political objectives, insisting that Maduro free political prisoners, schedule national elections, and respect the power of the National Assembly to name new judges and electoral authorities who are committed to a change in government. Political leaders may regard these measures, backed up by international oversight, as irreversible steps toward democracy. However, the opposition must be sensitive to the fact that, after each day of bloody repression, more Venezuelans will demand that Maduro relinquish power.
Another factor that has pinned Maduro’s back against the wall is his international isolation, engineered by Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Even before the nearly two dozen deaths in recent weeks, a majority of OAS member countries called on Venezuela to respect its constitution and schedule national elections. A regime that instead has engineered gross violations of human rights by marauding gangs will likely never recover any legitimacy with the international community.
It is clear that the OAS will remain engaged and insist on elections that it helps organize and monitor. But the OAS also should collect evidence of human rights abuses for referral to the International Criminal Court; hold regime leaders responsible for its vast inventory of weapons of war, and call on countries to cease the sale of guns, ammunition, and crowd control tools used so wantonly by Venezuelan authorities. The OAS also should urge member states to sanction individual human rights abusers or to offer exile to Maduro and his inner circle.
The Trump administration already has done more in 90 days to confront this lawless regime than President Barack Obama did in eight years. In February, the Treasury Department sanctioned one of Maduro’s henchmen, Vice President Tareck El-Aissami, for narcotrafficking and money laundering. Far from helping Maduro by stirring up nationalism within Venezuela or anti-U.S. ire in Latin America, as naysayers predicted, the decision delegitimized the regime, signaled new U.S. resolve, and helped rally support for OAS action.
And, while Obama’s diplomats discouraged OAS engagement in favor of a dialogue organized by Maduro’s allies, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster personally urged OAS members to confront the regime in Caracas. U.S. officials can further influence events by targeting additional sanctions against regime leader Diosdado Cabello, Minister of Interior Nestor Reverol, and U.N. Ambassador Rafael Ramirez—just a handful of the corrupt officials against whom U.S. agencies have assembled reams of evidence and eyewitness testimony.
Those Americans questioning whether the U.S. should get involved in this crisis should realize that U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil sustain Maduro’s corrupt and repressive regime. The $30 million a day garnered from U.S. oil purchases represents about three-fourths of Venezuela’s export revenue. (India is the only other cash customer; China’s substantial take of Venezuela exports goes to repaying loans already spent.) If the U.S. suspended those imports, the Maduro regime would not have the wherewithal to fund its police state.
A final factor that dooms Maduro is the deteriorating discipline of the military command structure. Anecdotal evidence and a handful of public denunciations suggest that much of the military’s officer corps is unwilling to use force against civilians to keep Maduro in power. Relying on the colectivos only further aggravates military professionals who are appalled by the violent repression. Moreover, officers whose families subsist on less than $40 per month view the brazen corruption of general officers and political leaders with disgust and disrespect. If Maduro is forced to ask the military to save his government, he may not like their answer.
It is clear that Maduro and his corrupt socialist regime are bound for destruction. The only question is whether others will stand by as he takes the rest of Venezuela down with him.
Roger Noriega (@RogerNoriega) was U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States. He is founder and managing director of Visión Américas LLC and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.