U.S. should mull sanctions against some Venezuelan opposition leaders

When the Trump administration announces its next list of sanctions against top officials of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro’s regime, it should consider adding several opposition politicians who have just dealt a devastating blow to the cause of democracy in that country.


The decision by four newly elected opposition governors to cave in to Maduro’s demand that they be sworn in by the Constituent Assembly – an unconstitutional Congress created by Maduro to supersede the democratically elected National Assembly – has caused the biggest setback to Venezuela’s opposition coalition in at least a decade.

After winning their respective states in the Oct. 15 elections – which were marred by serious irregularities across the country – the four opposition governors betrayed their fellow opposition leaders and handed a huge propaganda victory to the Maduro regime. There is only one word to describe what they did: treason.

First, their decision has caused a probable breakup of the opposition coalition, known by its Spanish acronym MUD. The group had previously decided that none of its elected politicians would help legitimize the Constituent Assembly, a Cuban-modeled legislative body that will allow Maduro to run the country indefinitely at his will.

Second, and just as important, the four opposition governors – perhaps with a wink from their party’s leader, opposition Democratic Action party chief Henry Ramos Allup – have seriously undermined international pressure against Maduro.

The United States, the 28-member European Union and 12 Latin American countries – including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru – recently stated that they will not recognize Maduro’s Constituent Assembly. They said that, instead, they will continue recognizing the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which was democratically elected in 2015.

The United States and several European and Latin American countries have also demanded that Maduro allow an independent electoral council and credible international observers to monitor the 2018 presidential elections.

But now, the whole premise of placing international pressure on Maduro as a way to restore democracy is on shaky ground.

As foreign diplomats are asking, how can the international community continue to refuse to recognize Maduro’s Constituent Assembly if Venezuela’s own elected opposition governors have done it?

The four opposition governors claim that they agreed to be sworn in by the Constituent Assembly because the people in their states asked them to do so. Their people are dying of hunger and desperately need government help to get food and medicine, they explained.

But there might also be political motives behind the decision. All four governors belong to Ramos Allup’s Democratic Action party, which is emerging as the only opposition party to control four states – and those states will now receive massive government funds.

Critics speculate that the governors betrayed the opposition MUD coalition as part of a plan to get money to finance Ramos Allup’s 2018 presidential bid. Maduro has already publicly stated that Ramos Allup will be his opposition rival in next year’s elections, fueling speculation that there is a tacit – or explicit – agreement between the two.

Ramos Allup says he repeatedly asked the four governors not to accept Maduro’s demand. And he says the four governors have now “self-excluded” themselves from his political party.

But the fact is that only Democratic Action governors betrayed the MUD coalition. A fifth opposition governor, Juan Pablo Guanipa, who belongs to a different party, has said he will not “kneel” before the Constituent Assembly.

So what now? While true democrats work to create a new opposition coalition in Venezuela, the international community should not lose sight of the fact that Maduro has broken the rule of law in Venezuela by creating a Constituent Assembly that is taking over congressional duties and paving the way for a Cuba-style dictatorship.

In addition, Western democracies should add the four recently elected opposition governors – and perhaps Ramos Allup, unless he shows that he’s not in cahoots with them – to their list of Venezuelan officials who have been denied visas and whose foreign bank accounts have been frozen because of their violations of human rights and the rule of law. They deserve it.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at