Helping Venezuela: Sanctions Are Only a Start

A man clad in a Venezuelan flag faces government security forces during a protest in Caracas, July 27, 2017. (Reuters photo: Ueslei Marcelino)

After staging a sham election doing away with the last traces of ordinary democratic government, Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan caudillo, has joined a very elite club, becoming one of four heads of state personally sanctioned by the U.S. government. Perhaps he can schedule a round of golf with Kim Jong-un, Robert Mugabe, and Bashar al-Assad: Hell’s own foursome.

The sanctions announced on Monday target Maduro personally, freezing his U.S. assets and prohibiting Americans from conducting any business with him. That is a start. The Trump administration is right to take seriously what’s happening in Venezuela and should consider doing more, up to and including prohibiting the import of Venezuelan crude oil.

The Trump administration has expressed hesitation to take the latter step, explaining that the American government does not want to do anything that will increase the suffering of the Venezuelan people. The reality is that the specter of higher domestic gasoline prices — we import about 10 percent of our oil from Venezuela — probably is part of the calculation as well. Both the Obama administration’s war on petroleum infrastructure — the development of which would mainly have deepened our energy-trading relationship with Canada — and President Trump’s armistice in that war will have long-term consequences for America’s ability to weather disturbances in the energy markets and to conduct foreign policy unshackled by oil-related vulnerabilities. The more-is-more approach to energy isn’t only about cheap gasoline.

Maduro’s show trial of an election purports to dissolve Venezuela’s national legislature and replace it with a “constituent assembly,” a new congress composed entirely of people nominated by the Maduro administration. This assembly will have the power to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution — a funny concession to appearances for a regime not especially inclined to follow the law when it comes to things like murdering political opponents.

Maduro is the heir to a fallen hero of the American Left, expired strongman Hugo Chávez, a ruthless tyrant whose rule in Venezuela was deeply admired by men and women who have the chutzpah to call themselves “liberals” in public: Hollywood dopes and dupes such as Sean Penn, Democratic grandees including Chaka Fattah (currently a long-term guest of Federal Correctional Institution McKean), and batty old Bernie Sanders, who celebrated Venezuela, along with Ecuador and Argentina, as a beacon of life where “the American dream is more apt to be realized.”

Some dream.

Venezuela is near the terminal point on the road to serfdom.

Venezuela is near the terminal point on the road to serfdom.

Maduro has overseen an extension and deepening of the economic catastrophe that began under Chávez, a steady degradation of economic life that is as inescapably associated with socialism as the red banner of chavismo. Inflation was 741 percent at last measure, the stores are empty of staples such as rice and cooking oil, blackouts leave the cities dark. And another kind of darkness has been loosed: Critics of the Maduro regime are murdered and tortured — opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma have been dragged from their homes and imprisoned — newspapers and other media are censored, and of course corruption is rampant. At least 120 protesters have been killed since April. Government publicity photos circulated on Twitter showed military officials rewarding soldiers for their loyalty with a scarce commodity: rolls of toilet paper.

Protests against the corruption and incompetence of the Maduro regime have been met with increasingly savage violence, and the country is for practical purposes in a state of low-level civil war. Instability in South America, which has a way of becoming contagious, is never in the interest of the United States. In addition to imposing sanctions, the Trump administration needs to work closely with American allies such as Canada (which has deep economic relations with Venezuela) and such relevant players as China (which has close governmental links with Venezuela) to develop an approach to the chaos in Venezuela that takes realistic stock of the economic and political interests involved. The aim is to help Venezuelans secure for themselves a government that is stable, democratic, and humane. The alternative is to passively watch Venezuela’s decline from police state to failed state — and we will not be the only ones watching: Spectators ranging from Raúl Castro in Cuba to opportunistic jihadists have an interest in Venezuela. So does the United States, and we should act on it.


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