National Security & Defense

Only a Presidential Referendum Can Save Venezuela from Its Humanitarian Crisis

Venezuelan presdient Nicolás Maduro (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
Obama-administration platitudes about ‘dialogue’ no longer suffice.

It has long since been noted that hapless Venezuela’s version of “21st-century socialism” pretty much bears all the hallmarks of your garden-variety 20th-century kind: twelve-hour food lines, pervasive shortages of basic consumer goods, a thriving underground economy, and moral and economic bankruptcy.

But just when you thought things could not get any worse, along comes another hare-brained government scheme resurrecting one more aspect of an unlamented time long thought to have been buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall: the forced-labor camp.

According to Amnesty International, a new government decree entails just that. To combat food shortages, the government announced that any employed Venezuelan — in the private or public sectors — can now be removed from his job and sent to work in agricultural production for at least 60 days. After that, the conscription could be extended an extra 60-day period; otherwise the individual is “allowed” to return to his day job.

“Trying to tackle Venezuela’s severe food shortages by forcing people to work the fields is like trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid,” said an Amnesty official. “Authorities in Venezuela must focus on requesting and getting much-needed humanitarian aid to the millions in need across the country and develop a workable long-term plan to tackle the crisis.”

The problem is, the government refuses to acknowledge there is any crisis and has turned away all offers of international humanitarian aid. Instead, President Nicolás Maduro denounces the bottoming economy as a “U.S. plot.”

RELATED: Venezuela Reaches the End of the Road to Serfdom

And even as economic conditions continue their death spiral, street crime and violence are soaring. A new Gallup poll reveals that the citizens of Venezuela feel less safe in their country than do people living in Syria and Afghanistan. Just 14 percent — the lowest score of any country in the world since 2005 — said they feel safe walking the streets alone at night.

It is difficult to imagine how a country reportedly sitting atop the world’s largest proven reserves of oil could reach such a level of desperation and dislocation. That being said, what options could possibly exist to arrest such a precipitous decline and forestall a social explosion?

Even as economic conditions continue their death spiral, street crime and violence are soaring.

It turns out the last, best hope for a peaceful, institutional change of direction in Venezuela is an article in the late president Hugo Chávez’s own constitution that allows for a recall referendum of the president. Over the past several months, the opposition has been gamely collecting the signatures in a complex process to trigger such a referendum.

Unsurprisingly, though, with polls showing that upward of 68 percent of Venezuelans would vote to remove Maduro, the electoral council he controls has been moving at a snail’s pace to process the opposition’s paperwork. That’s because, according to the constitution, if the government can delay the referendum until 2017, a No vote on Maduro would mean that his acolyte vice president would assume power for the rest of his term, rather than holding a new election, which would be required if the referendum was held this year.

It is a race against time, but at least the international community is rousing to its importance. The spirited secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro of Uruguay, has led the charge, calling it the “only solution” to Venezuela’s crisis.

RELATED: In Venezuela, Socialism Is Killing Venezuelans

Thankfully, the Obama administration is finally coming around to Almagro’s position. For months, the administration has been advocating a spurious “dialogue” between the Maduro government and the democratic opposition, a losing proposition akin to pressuring the opposition to take one more swipe at the football, à la Lucy and Charlie Brown.

But in recent statements, while still clinging to the notion of “dialogue,” the administration has expressed a newfound faith in the efficacy of a recall. As Secretary of State John Kerry recently remarked, “the Venezuelan constitution guarantees Venezuelans the right to have their voices heard through the referendum process. And we call on Venezuela’s authorities to allow this process to go forward in a timely and a fair manner, and not to play a game of delay that is to the advantage of one side versus another instead of to the advantage of democracy and the advantage of the upholding of the constitution of the country. And that is our position and we will continue to encourage that.”

#related#It’s good that the Obama administration is finally waking up to the fact that a major crisis is brewing in Venezuela, and that platitudes about “dialogue” no longer suffice. With its capital Caracas geographically closer to Washington, D.C., than is Los Angeles, Calif., Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis matters to U.S. interests. Moreover, Venezuela under chavismo has been converted into a major transshipment point for illicit narcotics headed to the United States.

Therefore, it is important that U.S. policy gets this right. It has been almost two decades since Hugo Chávez and his successors began a conscious assault on everything the United States has stood for in the Americas since the end of the Cold War. Chávez and his followers imagined themselves the second coming of Fidel Castro and his tawdry band of guerrillas — to the delight of progressives everywhere. But the real-world consequences of such folly are coming home to roost and, as usual, someone has to step up to help clean up the mess left behind.

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