Diplomatic and economic pressure, not military force, should be used to end the tenure of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
The need for new leadership is glaring: Successive socialist presidents — Hugo Chávez and Maduro — turned what was once South America’s most affluent nation into a failed state.
The resulting refugee flow, which may top 2 million, is a regionally destabilizing dynamic. For those who remain, a life of misery and danger gnaws just like the hunger created by chronic shortages of food and medicine.
The cause is clear: Maduro’s incompetent, corrupt, repressive regime has resulted in an economic collapse, hyperinflation and spiraling violence by security and paramilitary forces as well as street gangs.
After years of brave, but ineffective, opposition, a legitimate alternative has emerged: Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly. Guaido has declared himself Venezuela’s interim president. Millions of his countrymen, and the leaders of at least 20 nations, similarly recognize him as such, and that number may swell if Maduro doesn’t meet an end-of-week European Union deadline to schedule new elections.
Notably, Russia and China rallied around Maduro at the United Nations Security Council. Beijing’s motives appear more mercantile, especially given the considerable debt Venezuela owes China.
Moscow, meanwhile, benefits from hemispheric chaos that can distract from its malign activities. Oil-rich Russia also profits from Venezuela’s collapsing capability to export oil, a task that got harder on Monday when the Trump administration announced that it was sanctioning Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Despite Maduro’s characterization of escalating U.S. moves as an “open coup attempt,” the money will he held in escrow and turned over after a leadership change, the White House said.
The time is right for this change. Not because conditions suddenly deteriorated for Venezuelans — the disaster has been unfolding for some time now — but because the movement now has a leader who seems acceptable internally and internationally.
“The [Chavez and Maduro-led] Venezuela Revolution has been going on for two decades now,” Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, told an editorial writer. “And it’s been getting worse and worse in all aspects. More repressive politically, disastrous economically and more suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
“The missing element for all these years in trying to restore some semblance of democratic rule has been an ineffective opposition,” Shifter continued. “The reason why those in the region and the international community, including the United States, should focus on this moment is that that dynamic appears to have changed. The opposition now has a leader, it now seems to have a clear strategy and the regime is considerably weakened because of strong condemnation by Venezuela’s neighbors.”
The Trump administration, in a rare embrace of multilateralism, has helped foster this regional diplomacy, although it sent a mixed signal Monday when National Security Advisor John Bolton said that President Donald Trump “has made it very clear on this matter that all options are on the table.”
It was even more jarring that Bolton had written “5,000 troops to Colombia” on a yellow notepad he was holding.
The threat of force — which the American public, Congress, countries in the region and most profoundly Venezuelans would reject as an option — is a propaganda coup for Maduro that could unravel the regional resolve. Desperate Venezuelans and a destabilized region need diplomacy, not bellicosity.