Venezuela is in many ways accustomed to crisis. From its violent 19th-century liberation wars to the deadly 1989 Caracazo uprising in the nation’s capital, this is a country that’s seen its fair share of hard times and civil strife. But even against that history, the current crisis has become an all-consuming plunge toward a full-blown narco-authoritarian state. And with an upcoming vote on changing the constitution, things are set to quickly get much worse.
It has been more than 100 days of ongoing opposition protests, with more than 100 killed and thousands injured in brazenly violent repression by the Nicolás Maduro administration. With 176 percent inflation, many basic food supplies are unavailable, and what food can be found is distributed corruptly. Last year infant mortality shot up by 30 percent, reaching the levels of the poorest sub-Saharan African nations. Despite Venezuela’s possessing the largest proven oil reserves in the world, over nine in ten households are hungry or at risk of hunger.
Democratic institutions are facing extinction. On Sunday, the opposition held an unofficial plebiscite to show the world that the people oppose Maduro’s illegal plans to amend the Chávez-era constitution by instituting a new “constituent assembly” that would essentially supersede the existing legislature. Some 7.2 million people from across Venezuela and 80 countries around the world registered their rejection of this power grab cloaked as a vehicle to restore order. The July 30 vote on the constituent assembly could usher in a new body that would not only usurp the powers of the legislature and likely delay the 2018 presidential election, but also trigger the beginning of a more aggressive, more violent authoritarian state.
Normally, this would be the time when the international community would step in, using all available leverage to promote restoration of stability and peace. But that hasn’t happened.
The Organization of American States (OAS) should be the appropriate body to do this, but despite the valiant efforts of Secretary-General Luis Almagro, the forum is handicapped by obstruction from a handful of Caribbean states, which are propped up by cheaply financed Venezuelan oil. Incredibly, even a watered-down resolution criticizing the Venezuelan government could not muster the necessary votes to pass just a few weeks ago. The scorecard: Governments supporting action represent approximately 881 million citizens; those against, 52 million.
Abundant political will exists to double down and put pressure on the Maduro regime, if a suitable channel can be formed. Venezuela does not have the friends and support it once had, and cracks are beginning to show in the façade. Leaders across the region are no longer apprehensive about speaking out on Venezuela. Mexico, in particular, has demonstrated its desire to lead other major regional governments in putting pressure on Maduro — a reminder yet again of Mexico’s indispensable role as a strategic partner.
Abundant political will exists to double down and put pressure on the Maduro regime, if a suitable channel can be formed.
Increased pressure would further expose the deep divisions within the Maduro regime, as many diehard “chavistas” already feel he has betrayed Hugo Chávez’s revolution by empowering a narrow band of “boli-bourgeoisie” (“boli” is a reference to Chávez’s “Bolivarian democracy”) among the military. The defection of the once ultra-loyal chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Díaz is but the most visible sign of this split, while the recent shift of political prisoner Leopoldo López to house arrest shows that limited concessions can be extracted.
This is all the more reason to begin imagining the pathways available to build a coalition of states to collectively implement sanctions, and what such an intervention would look like.
Recent reports indicate that the White House is thinking of greatly strengthening its Venezuela policy. If Maduro moves forward with the July 30 vote, one option would be enacting targeted sanctions aimed at Venezuela’s oil sector. Since the U.S. is Venezuela’s largest oil buyer, these measures would have a devastating and immediate impact.
What would these sanctions look like? On the lighter end, PDVSA, the state oil company, could be banned from future tenders until conditions are met. Another option could be to apply sanctions similar to those imposed on the Russian oil company Rosneft, barring it from acquiring long-term dollar loans or U.S. holdings.
The most extreme option would be for the U.S. to place a partial or full ban on all Venezuelan oil imports. PDVSA — which has also secretly conspired with Damascus in an attempt to sell sanctioned Syrian oil to the U.S. — would be crippled, and Maduro’s days would be numbered. Cracks in the regime could turn into full-blown splits. Of course, with Venezuela accounting for almost 10 percent of total U.S. oil imports, such a policy would have to be carefully rolled out so as not to harm American interests.
Such a ratcheting up of action would yield major repercussions in Venezuela. But make no mistake: While the Venezuelan people have long been suffering without reprieve, sanctions like these would be sure to hit the government elite directly.
Venezuela’s crisis is one of global dimensions that represents a major opportunity for the U.S. to work together with Latin American nations to solve the biggest threat in the region today. Multilateral institutions are the preferred vehicle for finding consensus, but inaction cannot lead to complacency when human lives are at risk.