How to Clean Up the Mess in Venezuela

The United States has an unmatched ability to pressure other nations. Yet to have any real hope of positive change in Venezuela, Trump and his team will need diplomatic patience, persuasiveness and perseverance.

How to Clean Up the Mess in Venezuela

We Say: The festering socialism sore that is Venezuela hasn’t made it to the headlines much recently, but the boils are worse than ever.

In addition to the starvation and nonexistent medical care, now there are armed rebel groups. What, if anything, should the US do? 

Should we assume an attitude of benign neglect? Send shiploads of food for the local strongmen to steal? Import a few shiploads of immigrants?

Sooner or later this blight on our hemisphere will catch the attention of top US policymakers. Once the Monroe Doctrine warned European powers away from the Western Hemisphere with US protection. But what of a homegrown socialist dictator? Will we once again be involved in ‘regime change’? 

Republished from, by Shannon O’Neil, April 28, 2017.  Image credit: The Liberty Conservative – image not covered by license. Contributor: Donald Krebs.

Venezuela announced this week that it will withdraw from the Organization of American States, deepening its isolation and intensifying the sense of crisis there. In recent months, Venezuela has descended into economic, political and moral chaos, punctuated by the arrests of hundreds and the deaths of dozens of protesters during marches on Caracas and surrounding cities.

Venezuela is a test for the new Trump administration, which has declared it “a mess.” To stop the worst hemispheric crisis in decades, President Donald Trump needs a policy that includes not only tough words but also concrete actions. But the United States can’t do it alone. To help rather than hurt U.S. interests, the United States – the historic regional hegemon – needs to tread carefully and build a supportive coalition.

How did Venezuela come to this point? An oil-rich nation of 30 million, it is now in its third year of a steep recession, its gross domestic product has shrunk 18 percent in the last year alone, while inflation has spiraled into triple digits. Many Venezuelans have involuntarily been put on what has become known as the “Maduro diet,” shedding pounds as they slowly starve due to food and medicine shortages.

Politically, the government led by leftist President Nicolas Maduro has destroyed the remnants of a once proud democracy, overriding the legislature, canceling regional elections, stifling the press and filling cells with political prisoners.

Widespread corruption and criminality permeate the administration, with officials absconding with tens of billions of dollars from public coffers. Other officials shepherd Colombian cocaine and other illegal drugs through Venezuela’s airports and ports, taking their cut as the products head to American and European markets.

How can the United States help change Venezuela’s course?

First, there are things the U.S. administration should not do. Condemnatory and inflammatory tweets will only provide fodder for Maduro’s conspiracy theories. Countrywide sanctions cutting off Venezuela’s access to U.S. refineries, a la Russia in 2014, will inflict even greater costs on the nation’s desperate population. Worse, they would drive away potential allies, and provide Maduro an enemy on which to blame his failures. Unilateral actions in general will be ineffective, if not counterproductive, confirming long held regional suspicions of U.S. imperialist designs. America in this case cannot “come first.”

To succeed, the Trump administration must galvanize the international community against Venezuela’s increasingly repressive regime. The best hope for change is careful and consistent diplomacy.

This begins with Venezuela’s neighbors, who are most affected by its disintegration. Recent political changes make such unity more likely. New presidents in Peru, Argentina and Brazil have already suspended Venezuela from the Mercosur trading block and have vocally questioned its claims to democracy. The Trump administration should work to expand the number of anti-Maduro allies.

Beyond the region, other democratic nations, particularly in Europe, need to stand up for what is right. Pope Francis, who played an important though ultimately doomed role in creating a dialogue between the Venezuelan administration and the opposition, should join these voices and denounce the Maduro government’s authoritarianism. This broader group should raise its voice within the United Nations, naming and shaming the Maduro regime even while heeding his call for humanitarian relief.

Concrete actions, particularly for Venezuela’s kleptocrats and criminals, must follow multilateral words. In 2015 then-President Barack Obama declared seven high-ranking government and military officials persona non grata for human rights abuses and widespread corruption. The executive order denied them visas, froze their U.S. assets and accounts, and forbade them from doing business here. Trump recently added Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami to the list for his ties to narcotraffickers. Dozens of other officials have been denied visas for human rights and other abuses.

These targeted sanctions will be more economically, politically and morally effective if other nations also adopt them, ensuring that these individuals cannot move their ill-gotten gains through the international financial system and that they are refused the comfort of life away from the economic devastation they have wreaked at home.

As the Trump administration builds a coalition of nations for change, it needs to prepare with them for the possibility of Venezuela’s deeper collapse. This means readying for a surge in refugees into neighboring Colombia, Brazil, Guyana and nearby Caribbean islands. It also means preparing to help a future receptive government deal with the economic and financial chaos, bringing together the International Monetary Fund, creditors and others to restructure and restart Venezuela’s failed economy. Venezuela’s future should be added to bilateral talks with China, the South American nation’s largest outside creditor.

In short, Venezuela’s undoing threatens to undermine economic stability, security and democracy in the Western Hemisphere. The Maduro government’s willingness to permit drug traffickers, organized crime networks, and potential terrorists to operate within its borders undercuts regional and global security efforts. And Venezuela’s authoritarian turn contradicts the long-standing foreign policy ideals and goals held by so many.

The United States has an unmatched ability to pressure other nations. Yet to have any real hope of positive change in Venezuela, Trump and his team will need diplomatic patience, persuasiveness and perseverance.

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