The agony of Venezuela is great. Something like 4 million people have fled the country. They are fleeing crime, poverty, and outright starvation. People have died falling from trees, having climbed them to try to pick fruit. They have died after eating roots and weeds that turned out to be poisonous.
In recent memory, Venezuela was a model of democracy and prosperity in South America. The country is still rich in natural reserves. It is No. 1 in all the world in oil. (Yes, even ahead of Saudi Arabia.) It is No. 6 in gas. It is No. 10 in water. Yet Venezuelans, in their everyday lives, lack all of those things.
Hugo Chávez, a tragically gifted demagogue, started this regime in 1999. After he died in 2013, Nicolás Maduro continued it. Chavista Venezuela is a narco-tyranny, tied to Communist Cuba.
Danger to the chavistas came when the military, along with the rest of Venezuela, started to go hungry. As the exiled mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, remarked to our Jay Nordlinger, “there is nothing more subversive in a military than hunger.”
Some soldiers, undoubtedly hungry, have now turned mutinous. And Venezuelans are massing in the streets, demanding that Maduro and his gang go. (Some are massing in their favor as well.) The leader of the opposition is Juan Guaidó, 35 years old. He recently became the president of the Venezuelan legislature, such as it is. On the streets, he has now declared himself president of the country at large.
Guaidó had a special message for the armed forces: “None of you can live in a dignified manner on your military paycheck.You can’t meet the basic needs of your children and relatives.” In other words, Enough. Back me. It will get better.
The U.S. government, in the person of President Trump, has recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. So have many Latin American governments, plus Canada. Maduro has responded with the tried-and-true populism that won Chávez power in the first place.
“Don’t trust the gringos,” Maduro told a crowd of his supporters, gathered in their red shirts. “They don’t have friends or loyalties.” They only want to “take Venezuela’s oil, gas, and gold.” For good measure, he tweeted, “Let’s defend our sovereignty. . . . The streets belong to the people!”
U.S. policymakers have long had a dilemma: refrain from helping forces such as those arrayed against Maduro’s regime, leaving them to their own devices; or help them and see them labeled CIA stooges. “They’re going to call them CIA stooges anyway,” Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen once said, in the context of Cuba. “We might as well help them.”
That applies to Venezuela, now. The United States should give all the support it can to Juan Guaidó and the movement he leads.
The New York Times quoted ordinary Venezuelans saying such things as “You can feel hope in the air” and “This new leader has become our biggest hope.” Hope is often disappointed, but Venezuelans have the best opportunity they have had in years to overthrow the dictatorship that has oppressed and starved them. It is hard to imagine any successor regime being worse.