On October 20th, a new crisis began when the government-controlled National Electoral Council announced that it would indefinitely suspend the gathering of firms needed to approve a referendum that would recall Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Likewise, the government- controlled judiciary forbade opposition leaders from leaving the country. As the crisis unfolded, Pope Francis, in his well- meaning naiveté, announced the appointment of an envoy that would work to advance a national dialogue between the government and the opposition.
However, the opposition had it. It no longer believes in dialogue because the government has no intention whatsoever of releasing political prisoners , accept a recall referendum or negotiate a transition to a real democracy. On October 27th, massive demonstrations against the government took place across the country. Tens of thousands of people marched all over Venezuela and the government responded with violence. Also, the opposition called for a massive march on November 3. This time, marchers will walk towards the Miraflores Palace, the Venezuelan house of government. This move by the opposition was more than reasonable. Months ago, Latin American countries and the United States issued a statement in support of a national dialogue. However, the dialogue has gone nowhere and will continue to go nowhere under the papal mediation.
After the last measures taken by Venezuela, several Latin American countries and the Obama Administration issued a mild joint statement “expressing deep concern about the decision adopted by the electoral council” to stop the recall referendum process. Likewise, the statement condemned the decision of the Venezuelan judiciary to ban opposition leaders’ travel abroad. However, the communique ridiculously ends with a call to “all political actors to renew the national dialogue through mediation to find lasting solutions in support of democracy and social stability while guaranteeing respect for human rights, separation of powers, and institutional strength”.
This statement is appalling considering the Venezuelan government has shown many times before that it is not willing to negotiate with the opposition, and even less so about restoring democracy.
Even Human Rights Watch (HRW), an organization known for left-wing bias, wrote a letter to the Pope warning of the problems that his Venezuela initiative faces. HRW pointed out that no dialogue can succeed if it does not recognize “the authoritarian practices of the Venezuelan government”, which include “brutal repression,” “subordination of the judiciary,” and the “annulment of all the laws passed by the National Assembly”. Impeccably, the Human Rights Watch letter tells the Pope that “without strong international pressure to do so, this new dialogue risks serving only to allow the Maduro government to make disingenuous promises that do not solve the problems that Venezuela is facing, as previous dialogue initiatives have done.”
Why can’t the international community, including the United States and the Vatican, take an attitude towards Venezuela similar to the one taken during the turmoil in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution or the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, where demanding the resignation of a no longer legitimate government was the right thing to do?
It is unfortunate that nowadays there is skepticism in Washington about the value and wisdom of democracy promotion. As democracy promotion expert Thomas Carothers has pointed out, “Democracy is no longer among the main areas of concern in U.S. foreign policy. Democracy promotion is a ‘minority view’”.
It is possible that such attitude is the result of the disappointment with developments that have taken place in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, particularly in Iraq, Libya and Syria or the fact that anti-democratic forces have been elected in young democracies such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey. However, the fact is, as Carothers has also pointed out, this approach has emboldened authoritarian regimes that are now exhibiting a tremendous self-confidence. Whereas in the 1980’s and 1990’s authoritarianism appeared to be in retreat, at present authoritarianism à la Putin and Erdogan is becoming the new model to be imitated. The last casualty of this wave of authoritarianism seems to be the Philippines, another country with historical strong ties to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the U.S and its allies passively watch, accepting this new reality.
In the case of Venezuela, President Obama’s careful policy of not treating Latin American countries as “junior partners” is preventing his administration from helping the Venezuelan people. Venezuelans are currently suffering repression, violence, and starvation. If the Venezuelan people are to remember us as passive enablers of their oppression, the U.S is likely to promote more anti-American resentment as it is already happening in Syria.
In Venezuela, there is no excuse. No boots on the ground are needed. It is enough to support the opposition, demand the resignation of Mr. Maduro and encourage countries in the region and Europe to go along . Obama must speak up and lead an international campaign of public diplomacy demanding the resignation of the regime. Likewise, crippling sanctions need to be applied on the Venezuelan leadership and every state organ and individual involved in the oppression of the Venezuelan people. Decision on these policies need to be made by November 3rd, the day the Venezuela people will be marching to Miraflores Palace. We also urge Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to speak up in the strongest terms against Venezuelan authoritarianism. So far, both candidates have ignored this issue.
Published by Center for Security Policy on Monday October 31st, 2016