Democracy’s return to Venezuela has once again been deferred. Juan Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries, failed last week to persuade the military to unseat Nicolás Maduro. Few officers rallied to Guaidó’s side, and the regime beat back his followers’ street protests.
Whatever the reason — overconfidence on Guaidó’s part, Russian pressure, the scheming of Cuban intelligence operatives, all or none of the above — Venezuela has lapsed back into a toxic stalemate. Its economy is moribund, and its people poorer, hungrier and even more vulnerable than before to repression, misery and disease. The question is: What happens now?
U.S. officials say gravely that “all options are on the table.” They shouldn’t be: A military intervention to oust Maduro, even if successful, would only harden Venezuela’s divisions. A negotiated transition to free and fair elections remains the best way forward.
To that end, the U.S. ought to moderate its rhetoric. Brandishing Uncle Sam’s big stick and invoking the Monroe Doctrine have strengthened Maduro’s grip on his regime, disquieted America’s friends and stoked nationalist fervor among generals the opposition needs to recruit. Confusion within the Trump administration hasn’t helped (the president dismissed Russia’s involvement even as his top officials played it up), nor has its fixation on Cuba (moves to tighten sanctions against the island are more likely to roil U.S. allies than split Cuba from Maduro).
The European Union needs to step up, targeting more of Maduro’s helpers with visa bans and asset freezes. So does the Lima Group of mostly Latin American nations. It was formed to help restore Venezuelan democracy. So far, only a few of its members have frozen any Venezuelan assets; many still lack the laws that would let them do this. The outrageous arrest of the opposition-controlled National Assembly’s vice president is a reminder that the coalition needs a wider range of tools at its disposal to persuade the regime to change its ways.
At the same time, Vice President Mike Pence took a step in the right direction by announcing this week that the U.S. would lift sanctions on the former head of Venezuela’s national intelligence service — one of the few high-level officials who abandoned Maduro for Guaidó. It’s good, too, that the U.S. is sending the USNS Comfort to provide medical care to Venezuelan refugees. It would have been better if Pence had also announced an extension of Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans who’ve fled to the U.S.
Once Maduro exits, Venezuela will need all the help it can get. Even with the plans and pledges of the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral institutions, restarting Venezuela’s economy and repairing its democratic institutions will take years. Yet hope, at least, can be quickly restored. Before Venezuela became one of the world’s biggest humanitarian disasters, it was Latin America’s richest country, with the world’s largest oil reserves. It can prosper again. Getting rid of Maduro and holding free and fair elections are the essential first steps.