Venezuela, home to the largest oil reserves in the world, is literally starving. Suicide rates are skyrocketing, and food shortages affect 82 percent of the population. People wait in lines for hours just to buy food (if it’s available), and people are dying from lack of medicines.
Venezuela’s trajectory does not look good: According to economic forecasts, the socialist country may default on its sovereign debt and the debt of the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. Inflation is projected to be 720 percent by the end of 2016. Approximately 300 businesses are shutting down daily. Seventy-three percent of the population have indicated a desire for a change of government, and yet President Nicolás Maduro refuses to hold a constitutional recall referendum this year.
I frequently hear neighbors in Latin America emphasize the importance of “sovereignty,” referring to the principle that countries should manage their internal affairs without outside interference. I can appreciate that concern and could not agree more on the value of a country’s sovereignty to support democratic institutions and respond to the will of its people.
However, there are clear differences between protecting one’s country from undue outside influence and attempts by leaders to cling to power at the expense of their people. The Organization of American States (OAS) in the Western Hemisphere was created to guard against the latter and actively defend democracy in the Americas. Such a mission requires member states to stand unified on the principles of democracy and to bravely speak truth to power when governments suppress freedom, exploit the trappings of democracy while using government institutions for political purposes, or fail to respect the wishes of their people.
What rights do governments possess when they suppress democratic institutions and forcibly subdue the will of their citizens?
The answer is not military intervention (from the U.S. or any other country) to right such wrongs. The U.S. and other countries have other tools to advance national and regional interests, which include people’s freedom to pursue government accountable to the people.
Today, holdouts from democracy in the Americas are numerous and include Nicaragua and Ecuador, whose records of tyranny and oppression are clear. However, Cuba and Venezuela are the most egregious examples. Rather than speaking out regarding these countries, many member states of the OAS have elevated commercial interests (or their own self-preservation) above democratic principles.
Even so, it is not too late to speak truth to these regimes. So far, only OAS secretary general Luis Almagro has clearly acknowledged that democracy is failing in Venezuela. More countries need to show greater courage of conviction to condemn abuses of power when they see them.
The Obama administration has failed to articulate a clear message for what the United States stands for in Venezuela.
Likewise, the Obama administration has failed to articulate a clear message for what the United States stands for in Venezuela. What are we supporting — the people’s pursuit of freedom, or the Maduro regime, which controls practically the entire government and punishes dissent?
By sending Ambassador Thomas Shannon to Venezuela for high-level talks, the Obama administration offers a diplomacy victory to the Maduro regime, which is arresting protesters and using the judiciary as a tool for repression even as the Venezuelan people are starving and fighting for freedom. Lest we forget: The Maduro government violently suppressed student protests in 2014, resulting in the deaths of 43 people. Since February, it has imprisoned over 4,000 people for political reasons. Today, almost 100 political prisoners remain incarcerated.
In a remarkable twist of irony, only a few days before Ambassador Shannon arrived in Venezuela, the Maduro government had the audacity to arrest a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen, Francisco Márquez. This follows the earlier imprisonment of U.S. citizen Josh Holt. Both individuals remain in jail.
The Obama administration’s actions have rewarded the Maduro regime without prioritizing U.S. citizens or achieving anything significant. Such weakness in the face of consistent defiance of democratic principles does a serious disservice to the Venezuelan people, who are pursuing liberty against tremendous resistance. It also undercuts freedom throughout the Americas, as the guardians of democracy are sending mixed signals.
The U.S. should be sending a consistent message through all available channels: release all political prisoners, including U.S. citizens; adhere to democratic principles; hold a free and fair recall referendum this year; permit the delivery of emergency food and medicine; and stop all drug-trafficking activities facilitated by the Venezuelan state and its officials.
It is not too late for real action, but the Venezuelan people need true support now.