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Venezuelans who take to the streets today to reclaim their freedom from a narcodictatorship may finally have a fighting chance. The Trump administration’s unrelenting sanctions and an intense communications campaign — coupled with tough diplomatic pressure bolstered by Brazil’s new government — have ruled out any deals with Nicolas Maduro’s criminal regime. However, a popular uprising is a blunt instrument, and toppling Maduro is only a start. A smart, thorough US strategy is required to prevent wanton violence, uproot a dangerous criminal network, and put Venezuela’s economic recovery on the right track.
Numerous times in the last five years, Maduro succeeded in crushing pro-democracy demonstrations with ruthless tactics. Tragically, on those occasions, corrupt generals sided with their paymaster instead of their people. Opposition politicians struck suspicious deals with the regime, and the international community — including the United States under President Obama — indulged the folly of negotiating with criminals. This time, led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Trump team is determined to liberate Venezuela.
Maduro sealed his fate by staging a phony election last May and claiming a new term as president on January 10th. Key Latin American governments — led by Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, and the region’s “Lima Group” — categorically rejected Maduro’s legitimacy. Reflecting the hardline position of Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, key governments advocated a series of tough sanctions that are likely to be applied in the days ahead.
As Maduro has been discredited, Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly has been recognized as the country’s only legitimate institution, and its new president, Juan Guaidó, 37, emerged as a national figure leading the call for today’s mass demonstrations. After some hand-wringing among opposition leaders, Guaidó claimed the mantle of the presidency today at the urging of the OAS, the United States, Brazil, and others.
Venezuelans will measure the interim president’s every word to see whether he is committed to radical change or open to deals with the regime, like the politicians around him. It is an open secret that some opposition party bosses have received corrupt support from cronies of the regime. Others have been blackmailed, detained, tortured, or exiled. The key US policy makers who have vouched for President Guiadó should press him to take a hardline against criminals and corrupt politicians who have abetted Maduro’s ruthless rule. They also should press him to reverse ruinous socialist policies that have wrecked Venezuela’s economy and sown so much misery.
Splintering Maduro’s base or inducing the military to defect are natural parts of an opposition strategy. However, agreeing to protect corrupt elements of the ancien régime imperils real change, betrays the people, and runs counter to US plans for bringing criminals to justice. The United States can speak clearly by issuing (or unsealing) indictments against Maduro and his henchmen, Tareck El Aisammi and Diosdado Cabello, and arranging for their arrest.
The United States, Brazil, Colombia, and other countries have a great deal at stake in ensuring a turnaround in Venezuela. They should warn the regime of dire consequences if it uses violence against Guaidó or other innocent civilians. Similar warnings should be issued to Cuba, Russia, and China, who have propped up Maduro at a dreadful cost to 30 million Venezuelans.
The frontline states and the United States should plan to deliver humanitarian assistance the moment President Guaidó and the National Assembly authorize such operations on Venezuelan territory. If there is a murderous crackdown against demonstrators this time, these governments must be prepared to protect human life by confronting the regime’s use of violence.
According to sources within the regime, a growing number of military officers are shaken by the reality that they are in a battle they cannot win. And, as nationwide demonstrations began this week, hungry, desperate people from Caracas’ poorest slums flooded fearlessly into the streets to battle security forces. Like never before, the military leadership and rank-and-file soldiers are faced with a stark choice. Those who use weapons of war against patriotic demonstrators will end up before the International Criminal Court with Maduro. Those who do their duty to their people, under their constitution, may have a future in a new Venezuela.
Venezuela’s friends in the international community must be prepared to act boldly to defend their principles. After a decade of irresolute leadership, the United States is squarely on the side of the Venezuelan people.
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