Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro’s plan to convene a sham election before the end of April has been rejected by all major Latin American countries, the United States and the European Community. That’s good news, but it will be futile unless accompanied by three additional international actions.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not minimizing the 28-country European Union’s recent decision to deny entry visas and seize the financial assets of seven top Venezuelan officials and their close relatives. That was a major step, because top Venezuelan officials have billions of dollars in European banks, and many of them have their children living the good life in Madrid or Paris.
Now, they will have to get out of there.
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Likewise, the Jan. 23 decision by the so-called Group of Lima of Latin America’s biggest countries – including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Peru – to condemn Maduro’s call for early elections was very important. The 12-country Lima Group issued a statement saying that Maduro’s planned election without independent electoral authorities and credible international observers, and prohibiting all major opposition leaders from running for office, “will lack legitimacy and credibility.”
I don’t recall a similar situation in Latin America’s recent history in which there was such a strong international condemnation of a Latin American dictatorship. By comparison, Cuba has been getting a free ride for decades.
But Maduro’s calculation is that he can prevail. His new announcement of early elections has already managed to eclipse the news of his regime’s execution-style murder of rebel police officer Oscar Perez, whose videotaped statements shortly before his death were making big headlines around the world.
Despite hyperinflation, widespread shortages of food and medicines, and an almost 80 percent disapproval rate, Maduro thinks that time is on his side. If he can muddle through a few more months, oil prices may go up again, Latin America’s diplomatic pressure may lessen somewhat if leftist-populist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wins Mexico’s July 1 elections, and massive emigration will weaken Venezuela’s opposition.
More than 3 million people are estimated to have left Venezuela in recent years. Like in Cuba, Maduro is hoping to be left with a huge population of impoverished people who depend on government food rations to survive – and who can be easily controlled.
So what should the international community do?
First, Latin America’s Lima Group should move from words to action and impose the same travel and financial sanctions on top members of the Maduro regime and their closest relatives as the European Union and the United States have done. That would further isolate the regime domestically and internationally.
Second, the Lima Group, the European Community and the United States should state unequivocally that if top Venezuelan opposition parties, such as Voluntad Popular and Primero Justicia, decide not to participate in Maduro’s sham election, they will not recognize Maduro’s new re-election. So far, they have condemned the planned elections, but they have not said they will not recognize a Maduro victory.
Third, the international community should demand Venezuela’s opposition to take a united stand on whether to participate in the election, and support it.
Nobody should be under any illusion that Maduro would allow an opposition victory. The most obvious decision for the opposition would be to unanimously decide not to participate, but there could be other options.
Some opposition politicians tell me that a united opposition could, for instance, temporarily participate in the election process to take advantage of the three-month campaign period to organize massive street protests, and then pull out from the race at the last minute unless the regime allows a free election. That could allow the opposition to regain its momentum.
Whatever happens next, the opposition should be under no illusion that there will be a foreign military intervention. I have not spoken to one single U.S. or Latin American official who thinks that’s a serious possibility – and agree on a unified stand.
And Latin American countries, Europe and the United States should rapidly step up concrete measures against Maduro and his inner circle. Otherwise, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis will continue to deteriorate and spawn a Syrian-style regional refugee crisis.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.