The strife in Venezuela underscores how quickly democracy can die: not in darkness, but out in the open, replete with violence orchestrated by a government with contempt for the will of its people.
Last week, president Nicolás Maduro’s regime scored a troubling victory with the illegal election of key assembly members whose goal is to rewrite the country’s constitution to his liking — an outrageous power grab. After that vote, the United States froze Maduro’s US assets, banned him from traveling here, and prohibited Americans from doing business with him.
Maduro, who owns no assets in the United States, laughed it off. So this week, the US Treasury imposed individual sanctions on eight more Venezuelan officials, including the brother of the late Hugo Chávez.
Cutting off individuals from the American financial system made for a good first step, but the quickly deteriorating situation calls for an escalated, multilateral response coordinated by the United States. The Trump Administration is said to be thinking about an oil embargo, which would be aimed at crippling the regime’s revenues and forcing Maduro to schedule presidential elections and backtrack from his most recent power grab.
“You can’t get to strong and swift economic sanctions without touching the oil sector, because that’s the only sector that is still operating, albeit in a much deteriorated state,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas.
But tougher sanctions that strike at the heart of Venezuela’s teetering economy must be accompanied by international humanitarian aid for a suffering population. The country has been in a freefall, riven by widespread hunger, skyrocketing inflation, and street violence. More than 120 Venezuelans have died since daily antigovernment protests began four months ago. There’s a dire lack of medicine to treat the sick, and infant mortality soared 30 percent last year. The economy is expected to shrink by as much as 10 percent this year. Civil war is a real risk.
A report published this week by the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, outlines at least five current options available to the Trump administration, ranging from limiting access to financing for PDVSA, the Venezuelan oil company and owner of Citgo, to arguably the most severe: banning US oil imports from Venezuela.
“All of these options can be rolled out in a way to minimize the negative impact on the US economy and American businesses and also on the Venezuelan people,” said David Mortlock of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and one of the authors of the report.
That may be an optimistic view. The unraveling of Venezuelan society poses a challenge for US diplomacy, and it unfortunately remains an open question whether the White House is organized enough to lead a comprehensive response. But it’s clear that sanctions imposed so far are not working. The United States, and the rest of the world, must send Maduro the message that they will not allow him to hijack his own country.