Venezuela is imploding as its political institutions are crumbling and its people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. There is a level of desperation that goes unanswered. The government shoots people without mercy as was recently the case with a young 22 year old man. Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader and political prisoner, complained about being tortured in jail. Seventy six people have died at the hands of government forces since protests began. Hunger prevails as a result of shortages, and this issue is affecting thousands of people including children.
The country’s attorney general, a former supporter of Chavez and Maduro, has said that in Venezuela the judiciary receives orders directly from the intelligence service (SEBIN). Likewise, she criticized the process of constitutional reform as an attempt to institutionalize a dictatorship. She has been fired and threatened by the government with punitive action. Indeed, a Constitutional Assembly has been convened for the end of July to carry out this attempt at institutionalizing Venezuela’s dictatorship.
It is again obvious as it has been all along that the dialogue with the Maduro government will never take place. Maduro is determined to hold on to power. If he does, Venezuela is likely to become even more of a criminal state. As oil production diminishes due to mismanagement, it is likely that Venezuela will become even more dependent for income on transnational crime, thus multiplying the problems the region has faced for decades.
Last week the government of Colombia extradited to the U.S. a Venezuelan military officer, Yazensky Lamas, who used planes that belonged to Colombian drug cartels in order to transport huge amounts of cocaine to the United States. Lamas conducted more than 100 flights from Venezuelan soil to Central America and the U.S.
Of course, this arrest is only the tip of the iceberg in a country where politicians and military officers are heavily involved in drug trafficking.
But a most troublesome episode recently took place during the General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS).
The central theme of the General Assembly on June 21st and 22nd in Cancun, Mexico, was Venezuela. Hours before the summit began, countries of the region thought they would have the majority of 23 countries needed by law to pass a resolution on Venezuela. The new resolution drafted and led by Mexico already contained a compromise from resolutions previously proposed. It did not mention the demand to release political prisoners. Instead of rejecting Maduro’s authoritarian “constitutional reform’, the resolution merely urges Venezuela to reconsider it. Likewise, the resolution called for the commencement of dialogue between the government and the opposition. This demand is futile and irrelevant as Maduro will never compromise his power nor discuss holding elections.
While the Mexican Foreign Minister was already celebrating, in advance of the passing of the resolution, the Venezuelan delegation began lobbying the other countries of the region. The Venezuelan delegation was the largest one, and it targeted the Caribbean countries, which together owed more than 2 billion dollars to Venezuela. In the end, only six Caribbean countries voted in support of the resolution. Several of them who promised to support the resolution ended up abstaining.
Even though Mexico’s resolution was weak, Venezuela survived. Venezuela applied heavy pressure using the debt owed to them as leverage. To add insult to injury, the Venezuelan foreign minister, Delcy Rodriguez, mockingly said after the vote “you wanted a timetable for elections. You got it. It is July 30.” This assertion was in reference to the constitutional assembly aimed at strengthening Maduro’s oppressive rule.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decided at the last moment not to participate in the general assembly and instead sent his deputy, John Sullivan. Some of the countries believed that if Tillerson had been there the results would have been different. Obviously, Tillerson was not aware of how much countries of the region look up to the U.S. Yet, not all might be lost. The good news is that even though the OAS resolution did not secure the 23 country majority needed, it reached a majority, nonetheless. As it was mentioned previously, the resolution would have been useless in practice. So, not to be bound by it may be even better.
The fact that the majority of Latin American countries stood against Venezuela gives legitimacy to the United States to carry out unilateral sanctions against that country. The U.S policy of “leading from behind” has been ineffective. A more corpulent strategy is needed. If the United States wants to be effective, it must impose crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s political and military leadership. It should use Interpol to arrest and deport any Venezuelan involved in crimes as happened with Mr. Lamas. It must freeze Venezuelan assets in the U.S. and not allow CITGO to continue its operations in the country.
Whereas an oil embargo could increase government and military-sponsored crime, the U.S. should make clear that the regime will pay a heavy price for their crimes. In addition, the United States must actively implement extradition agreements with countries of the region as it has done with Colombia. Likewise, it must forbid American companies from doing business with Venezuelan institutions associated with the regime. The recent purchase of Venezuelan bonds by Goldman Sachs is an outrage that represents the softness with which the government of the United States has treated Venezuela.
However, the Trump Administration has the power conferred by Congress to apply sanctions as it sees fit. Therefore, it should bring sanctions against high level Venezuelan officials, including travel bans. In addition, it can freeze assets linked to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his top officials and can forbid business transactions with Venezuela-government related bodies.
Also, the U.S needs to encourage dissidence. The more military officers and others who abandon Maduro, the better. Maybe some incentives need to be offered to those who abandon Maduro.
The region is hungry for real American leadership. The Trump Administration has the legitimacy as well as the moral obligation to do so for the region and for the security of the United States.