By Amanda Mattingly
Protestors throwing rocks, police throwing tear gas canisters, and a president throwing away his own country—that’s what Venezuela looks like today. In the last week, the images that have emerged show a country in disarray and a people suffering from the greatest economic collapse and political crisis in the region. Reportedly, three people have died in the protests, hundreds have been injured and arrested, and the opposition is vowing to keep up the pressure on President Nicolás Maduro. Venezuela is on fire and the only peaceful way to put out the flames is for the government to call elections—now.
Calling for elections, the release of political prisoners, and respect for the Venezuelan Constitution and democracy, the most recent protests erupted after the Supreme Court attempted to take over the legislative powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The situation was then exacerbated by news that the government had barred former presidential candidate and opposition leader Henrique Capriles from running for public office for 15 years. Meanwhile, the government has called opposition leaders like Capriles terrorists who are seeking to use violence and sabotage to undermine Maduro and the socialist Bolivarian state. But in reality, Maduro knows that Capriles is a political threat. Aside from the jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López, Capriles is the only opposition leader who could mount a real electoral challenge to the current regime.
Speaking in Cuba on April 10, while protests roiled Caracas, Maduro condemned the protestors as being part of a right-wing, “coup-mongering,” U.S.-led conspiracy to overthrow his government. But blaming the U.S. government for Venezuela’s own economic failures and political turmoil is a tired trope that has been used by leftist governments for decades throughout Latin America. If anything, the U.S. government has not done enough to respond to Venezuela’s current crisis. Overshadowed by Syria and North Korea, the situation in Venezuela has not been given its due attention by the U.S. Department of State or the White House, which has been slow to put together a team covering Western Hemisphere affairs and to articulate its foreign policy objectives in the region.
Maduro also called for the Venezuelan opposition to return to the dialogue table with the government. But dialogue with the Venezuelan government is a joke—talking about the economic, political, security, and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is no substitute for actually doing something about the crisis. The time for discussion has passed, and leaders throughout Latin America are intensifying pressure on the Venezuelan government to do more to help its own people. Brazil, Peru, and Argentina have even led an effort to censure Venezuela in the Organization of American States (OAS), arguing that Venezuela is in violation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. This is no small move on the part of Latin American governments, which are usually loathe to criticize one another, particularly considering it could lead to sanctions against Venezuela. Diplomatic pressure from the international community could also increase the likelihood that Maduro will have to heed OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s calls for elections.
The U.S. State Department has also backed calls for elections, and in a statement, urged nonviolence by the demonstrators and for the government security forces to protect the protestors. While the administration is right to call for a peaceful electoral solution, it should do more with its regional partners to address the crisis. U.S. President Donald Trump should appoint a special diplomatic envoy to work with other leaders in Latin America to determine what aid or other assistance the international community could provide for the Venezuelan people. Unfortunately, the tepid response by the United States to the uprising—the largest in Venezuela since 2014—is just one example of how Western Hemisphere affairs often go overlooked in the sea of foreign policy objectives and national security concerns perceived as more important or pressing.
But a collapsing Venezuela undermines stability in the region, as the chaos and humanitarian disaster in the country is unsustainable. Further, the turmoil presents national security threats to the United States, which have yet to be realized fully by the current administration: an increase in migrants and political asylum-seekers from Venezuela to the United States, an increased flow of narcotics from the Andes region via Venezuela, and the very real possibility that Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), could end up in the hands of the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft. If the cash-strapped PDVSA defaults on its debt payments to the Russians, Rosneft could then take ownership control of the American-based company—a scenario that is alarming for U.S. senators who recently voiced their concerns to the U.S. Department of Treasury.
As the Trump administration is learning, retrenchment to an “America First” foreign policy is untenable. Ignoring the crisis in Venezuela would mean ignoring the very real threats Venezuela poses to U.S. and regional security. Ultimately, it is up to the Venezuelans to effect real change for themselves. Still, this will not happen without sufficient and sustained support from the leaders of the Western Hemisphere, including the United States, or pressure on the Venezuelan government to put out the fire and call for new elections.
Amanda Mattingly is a Senior Director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department and the National Security Council. Views expressed are her own.
[Photo courtesy of Andrés E. Azpúrua]