The arrest of two elected mayors in Venezuela last week demonstrated that repression is ramping up in the oil-producing and deeply troubled country. The arrests—on trumped up charges of inciting and tolerating a rebellion
in which 33 protesters have already been killed
—signaled that the government of President Nicolas Maduro has shifted from systematically but subtly dismantling institutional checks and balances and independent media to purging the government of elected officials.
Sadly, Venezuela’s neighbors are unlikely to do anything about it, and this collective failure to protect democratic norms and human rights has placed the U.S. in the position of coming forward to defend what was once thought to be a hemispheric consensus. Given the toxic mix of narcotics trafficking, insecurity, polarization and institutional regression, the longer the situation is allowed to fester, the more regional governments risk a failed state in their own neighborhood.
Since taking office, Maduro has struggled to manage Venezuela’s deteriorating economic and political situation. He inherited inflation close to 50 percent, a fiscal deficit of 11.5 percent of GDP and an economy reduced to oil revenues for its hard currency and its growth. As a result, Maduro squeaked by in his April 2013 election victory with a 1.6 percent margin.
Since then, conditions have worsened, both democratically and economically. On the political front, Maduro has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, former President Hugo Chavez, vilifying his political opponents as fascists and gutting governmental checks and balances by refusing to appoint new judicial officials.
Economically, the country teeters on the edge of disaster. Inflation now rages at 57 percent. The official exchange rate is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar, while the black market rate is more than 50. A new currency regime is supposed to come online soon, but few predict that it will close the gap.
As a result, local production has contracted, creating shortages in local markets. The economic conditions and lack of effective means of expression drove Venezuelans to the streets in Caracas on Feb. 12. The reported rape of a female student protester in Tachira led the protests to spread nationally, and the political opposition soon joined. Today, pockets of protest continue to rage in Tachira, Caracas, Maracaibo, Puerto Ordaz, Valencia and San Cristobal. In the midst of the protests, the government arrested opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, sought to repress the protests and threatened other opposition leaders—including arresting the two mayors.
The question the U.S. confronts now is how best it can speak out against human rights and democratic violations in Venezuela without inflaming an already polarized situation
and jeopardizing the principles it seeks to defend. The potential U.S. response is limited by three factors: the Venezuelan government’s predictable but effective nationalistic appeals to sovereignty and victimization, an opposition that too often has overplayed its hand in the past and the failure of regional governments to enforce the very norms to which they are signatories.
Among the latter, only Panama has spoken out forcefully, calling on the Organization of American States (OAS) under its Inter-American Democratic Convention—which ostensibly requires member states to collectively act to defend democratic institutions—to initiate actions to discuss the situation in Venezuela. However, member governments stayed silent, and Maduro broke off relations with Panama, calling it a U.S. lackey.
As the situation worsens, leadership has fallen increasingly to Washington, not just to defend democratic norms but also to ensure regional stability. Venezuela is the fifth-largest international source of U.S. oil and, under its generous PetroCaribe program, provides discounted oil to the small, cash-strapped countries in the Caribbean.
While the options aren’t easy, a few interim steps could spark courage on the part of regional neighbors, reassert U.S. public leadership on democratic norms and provide a cushion for the long-term implications of the inevitable collapse in Venezuela.
First, it’s time for the U.S. to defend the principles it stands for, even if no one else is willing to. Though presidential talks as proposed by Maduro are unlikely, the U.S. can offer to engage in high-level discussions under a set of clear conditions: the release of all political prisoners, including Lopez and the two mayors; an agreement not to arrest other opposition leaders; and the cessation of attacks against political opponents.
Second, Washington should call for a regional summit. Maduro will denounce any effort to broaden the effort, and Brazil will chafe at U.S. involvement in what it wants to pass off as a South American matter. But it’s time to pointedly call on regional governments to meet their obligations, including an insistence that any efforts at mediation by regional neighbors include two components: the conditions listed above and an on-the-ground monitoring presence.
Third, as it has already begun to do, the U.S. needs to step up its readiness to provide food, financial and energy assistance to the beneficiaries of Venezuela’s waning petro-patronage. Those governments will suffer when the Maduro regime collapses economically. The U.S. needs to begin offering economic cushions or incentives to those governments now.
Fourth, the U.S. must continue to emphasize a multilateral solution in Venezuela, whether it’s through the OAS, some ad hoc coalition of governments or the U.N. Doing so provides both cover and a way to depolarize the situation.
To this end, the U.S. Senate’s proposal to increase U.S. funding for opposition groups and sanction Venezuelan government officials responsible for the repression is unhelpful. For one, the funding proposal unnecessarily exposes the Venezuelan opposition to the familiar charge that it is an instrument of U.S. policy. For another, the targeted sanctions place the U.S. out of step with Venezuela’s neighbors, who regrettably worry that such measures will open up their own governments to the same response should they themselves crack down on protests.
It’s time for the U.S. to come off the sidelines and defend the principles the region has so far been silent on. But it should do so in way that opens the way for a multilateral approach, instead of closing that option off.
Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Follow him on Twitter on @ChrisSabatini.