The latest U.S. and Latin American measures to repudiate Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro’s fraudulent May 20 re-election deserve applause. But let’s not kid ourselves: They are largely symbolic moves that won’t suffice to topple the Venezuelan regime.
The international community will have to impose much tougher measures to force Maduro to allow free and fair elections. And the window of opportunity for doing that is narrowing fast.
President Trump signed an order on Monday prohibiting the purchase of Venezuelan debts or accepting an equity stake in Venezuelan government properties. Earlier this year, the Trump administration had slapped personal financial and visa sanctions on dozens of high-ranking Venezuelan officials.
Likewise, the 14 Latin American countries that make up the so-called “Lima Group” – including Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Peru – announced Monday that they were temporarily recalling their ambassadors to Venezuela.
In addition, several Latin American countries said they will consider individual financial and travel sanctions against top Venezuelan officials.
But the fact is that the Trump administration has not yet taken major steps to curb U.S. oil imports from Venezuela, which account for the Maduro regime’s biggest – if not only – legal source of income.
Venezuela relies on oil exports for 90 percent of its foreign income, and most of Venezuela’s oil exports go to the United States.
If Trump doesn’t stop buying oil from Venezuela, why should we take economic measures against Maduro? One Latin American president asked me that not too long ago.
Trump administration officials are known to be considering curbing Venezuelan oil imports, but so far the idea has been discarded for fears it would further raise U.S. gas prices. That’s something that Trump doesn’t want to happen before the November midterm elections, Washington insiders say.
But there are other things Trump could do short of ordering an oil embargo, such as cutting U.S. exports of diluents to Venezuela. The South American country uses mostly U.S. diluents to reduce the viscosity of its heavy oils, and would have to pay much more to get them elsewhere.
Latin American and European countries should move fast to impose individual financial and visa sanctions on top Venezuelan officials, their relatives and straw men. So far, the European Union has slapped sanctions on only seven Venezuelan regime members, and most Latin American countries have yet to do it.
Time is of the essence, because there are three powerful factors that start with the letter “M” that will benefit Venezuela’s dictatorship as times goes by.
The first one is migration. More than 2 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, and their numbers may grow, as the country’s inflation rate is expected to hit 13,000 percent this year, the highest in the world.
Mass migration will benefit Maduro, because – like in Cuba before – it will leave him with fewer mouths to feed and result in a huge influx of dollars in family remittances. Venezuela’s minimum wage at the black market rate has plunged to $3.6 a month, and growing numbers of Venezuelans are living off the money sent by their relatives in Miami, Colombia or Panama.
The second factor that will benefit the Maduro regime is misery. Most Venezuelans depend on government food subsidies, which allows Maduro to exert political controls through food-for-vote programs. Also, misery begets physical exhaustion, and political apathy.
The third factor that may work in Maduro’s favor is Mexico’s July 1 elections, which according to current polls may be won by leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. If he wins and pulls out from the Lima Group, as many anticipate, the group would lose one of its biggest and most active members.
For international pressures to work, they should be stepped up, taken in unison and be accompanied by greater unity of Venezuela’s opposition parties and escalating protests on the streets. As exiled opposition leader Carlos Vecchio told me, “International support is essential, but not sufficient.”
I agree. Western democracies and Venezuela’s domestic opposition should act fast, because – despite Venezuela’s economic collapse – time may be running in Maduro’s favor.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent. He can be contacted at email@example.com.