The Venezuelan tragedy

Aug. 7, 2017
Assessment of international responses to the tragedy of Venezuela should begin with this observation: Dictators don't surrender power.

Assessment of international responses to the tragedy of Venezuela should begin with this observation: Dictators don't surrender power.

President Nicolas Maduro has made himself dictator of Venezuela and will not surrender power. To keep power, he will let a once-flourishing economy collapse, submit Venezuelans to unspeakable deprivation, and jail anyone who resists-or worse.

US sanctions

In response to Maduro's July 30 demolition of Venezuelan democracy, sanctions imposed by the US Department of the Treasury might seem light. Yet they'll have no less effect than the stronger measures that had been discussed. Lighter sanctions are preferable now because they'll do less collateral damage, especially to long-suffering Venezuelans. The chilling likelihood is that Maduro will keep power until physically separated from it.

The Treasury Department added Maduro to a list of current and former Venezuelan officials "and others undermining democracy in Venezuela" whose assets in the US have been made inaccessible and with whom US residents cannot do business. It took the action after Maduro staged an election to create the National Constituent Assembly, which displaces the popularly elected National Assembly, and to make constitutional changes concentrating power in the presidency. The election capped months of increasingly violent protests and was followed by the jailing of two leaders of the vanquished opposition.

Tougher sanctions considered by the administration of President Donald Trump included a ban on US imports of Venezuelan crude oil and prohibition of the use of dollars by the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA. Those moves might have increased whatever discomfort Maduro feels. But they would have hurt refiners needing heavy crude, possibly encouraged China to bail out PDVSA to protect the tens of billions of dollars it is owed, and aggravated the threat of a global supply disruption from labor strikes triggered by PDVSA's looming inability to pay workers. Tougher sanctions thus would have worsened the suffering of beleaguered Venezuelans, disrupted business outside Venezuela, and not changed Maduro. They can be implemented later if needed.

Important now is a clear assertion that Venezuela's degradation into a plus-size version of Cuba contradicts interests of the US and other Western Hemisphere democracies. The US has no acceptable way to dislodge Maduro unilaterally. But it can add pressure without hurting itself.

Washington was correct to put Maduro in the odious company of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, and North Korea's Kim Jong-un as sanctioned heads of state. Now it should start publishing whatever details are available about his frozen assets and those of other sanctioned Venezuelans. Information about who profits from Venezuela's impoverishment might be especially interesting to Maduro loyalists harboring doubt.

The US also should seek help from regional alliances. Mercosur, a trade alliance including Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, commendably suspended Venezuela last year. The Organization of American States, by contrast, couldn't pass a resolution calling on Maduro's regime to end violence and respect human rights. That development is reprehensible, a relic of diplomacy underwritten by concessionary oil sales, and needs reconsideration. The US should make this clear.

The US also should underscore Cuba's role in Venezuela's collapse. The island nation promoted the socialist authoritarianism of Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and cultivates the disastrous consequences with military troops and security goons. US-Cuban relations supposedly improved by President Barack Obama merit no delicate handling. Havana never reciprocated by easing state control over individuals and businesses. Cuba must be addressed as part of the Venezuelan problem. And distant suitors Russia and China must be told to stay away.

Engage in crisis

What's most important is that the US engage in the crisis in a measured way and that it align its interests with those of Venezuelans in clear opposition to Maduro and his thugs, Venezuelan and otherwise. There are no prompt or easy remedies. The immediate goal must be to hold a broken country above anarchy and radicalization.

Petroleum economies should not and need not become humanitarian catastrophes. Socialist autocracies usually do.