Venezuela was once one of Latin America’s most stable and prosperous democracies, but has spiraled downward on all fronts at a dizzying pace after years of neglect and economic mismanagement by the autocratic regimes of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro. Since Chavez’s death and Maduro’s assumption of power, Venezuela’s economy has contracted every year since 2014, political and civil liberties have been ravaged, and corruption is rampant. Hyperinflation is predicted to reach 10 million percent in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund, while more than three million Venezuelans have fled their country, seeking to escape crime, unemployment, and shortages of goods from food to medicine to toilet paper. For decades, Latin Americans and others sought refuge in Venezuela from their economic and political crises, but today that reality has sadly reversed.
There have been glimmers of optimism for Venezuelans during the past few years. The victory of an opposition legislative coalition to the National Assembly in 2015 brought some hope for change, but over the next two years a politicized judiciary and the creation of a pro-government National Constituent Assembly rendered the National Assembly virtually powerless. In May 2018, Maduro was reelected to a second six-year term in elections that were deemed by a broad range of international governments and observers as flawed and illegitimate, as it was scheduled on an accelerated basis to advantage Maduro and most leading opposition parties and candidates were excluded from participation. On January 23, 2019, president of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó branded Maduro a “usurper” and declared himself the interim president. His justification was based on constitutional grounds; according to Venezuela’s constitution, if the presidency is vacant (which Guaidó argues in this case it is because Maduro took the office illegitimately), the head of the National Assembly becomes acting president.
Since Guaidó’s declaration, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets to march in peaceful opposition to Maduro’s regime. From February 2018 to February 2019, there was a 260% increase in protests, averaging 57 protests per day. A total of 54 countries, from the United States and Canada to a majority in Latin America and nearly all European Union (EU) countries, have recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim leader. Further, the Unites States has imposed new sanctions barring U.S. companies from engaging with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, which will result in financial losses for the Maduro government amounting to billions of dollars. While the top military brass, which have been given senior positions and have access to economic privileges, continue to support Maduro, there are signs that loyalty from the rank and file may be waning. Many have fled to countries like Colombia and Peru, some have disobeyed orders to stop protesters from marching, and the creation of gang-style external forces (colectivos) to crack down on the opposition may be an indication of fissures within the military. However, an attempt to conduct a coup on April 30, 2019 failed due to insufficient support from the military. Additionally, Maduro continues to receive support from certain members of the international community, such as Cuba, Russia, China and Turkey, which maintain that Maduro is Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Venezuela is at a critical crossroads. For the first time in decades, a democratically elected leader is in a position to potentially end the criminal regime that has crippled Venezuela. Recommendations for the U.S. administration to support Venezuela’s return to democracy include:
- Continuing to work on a bipartisan basis with the international community and Venezuela’s democratic activists to support Venezuela’s democratic transition, specifically Guaidó’s efforts to force Maduro to step down and to create a transitional government until free and fair elections take place.
- Continuing and strengthening targeted economic sanctions against Maduro and his inner circle, including travel bans, against those individuals who have committed human rights abuses and other crimes, such as drug trafficking, corruption, and destroying democratic institutions.
- Increasing international economic pressure on Venezuela by choking off the revenues from oil sales.
- Considering imposing sanctions on international gold traders and the refineries and companies they control that purchase gold, which benefits the Maduro regime.
- Encouraging Venezuelan military leaders to defend the legitimately and democratically elected officials, namely Interim President Juan Guaidó and his government.
- Maintaining a strong international alliance with multilateral organizations such as the Lima Group, a coalition of more than a dozen Latin American countries organized in 2017 to end the crisis in Venezuela, the International Contact Group, made up of several EU and Latin American states, the G-7, and the European Union, and encouraging them to pressure Maduro to step down so that there may be a peaceful democratic transition.
- Recognizing the National Assembly as the only legitimately elected national body in Venezuela.
- In coordination with regional efforts and neutral parties, providing humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people to the extent possible despite efforts by the Maduro regime to prohibit aid from entering the country.
- Ensuring that Venezuelans in exile in the United States receive Temporary Protected Status.
- Preparing for the day Maduro leaves office by developing a plan to end sanctions and transition to support for Venezuela, working with the international community to provide financial and humanitarian assistance as quickly as possible.
- Initiating joint and interagency table-top exercises to enhance U.S. governmental coordination for the complex operations that will accompany a Venezuelan transition.
- Encouraging the international community to make clear their concerns to countries that continue to support Maduro, such as Cuba, Russia, China and Turkey.
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.