Venezuela Is Showing The World Its True Authoritarian Face

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By LatAm Reports Editorial Team

Venezuela’s political crisis has been ongoing for the past five years, with efforts to restore democracy coming full circle. After more than 50 nations recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president in 2019, his failed attempt to rally the Venezuelan military to his side, and Donald Trump’s sanctions and unrealistic talk of a US invasion, recent attempts at reconciliation have been made. This includes the lifting of some sanctions and the agreement in Barbados last October to release political prisoners and stage some kind of presidential election later this year. However, the feeling among activists in Venezuela and diplomats in capitals around the Americas, at least in private, is helplessness. Venezuela is a narcostate that takes political prisoners, impoverishes its people, hemorrhages millions of migrants, and periodically pretends to be just reasonable enough to improve its international standing, and win some economic dividends before slamming the door shut again.

Recent events have made it clear that Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, has stopped even pretending to move towards a democratic thaw. Maduro arrested a well-known human rights activist and then abruptly kicked a United Nations’ human rights agency out of the country, giving its staff 72 hours to leave. The tactics were old, but the feeling was somehow new. The forced disappearance of Rocío San Miguel, who has excellent contacts in the Venezuelan military, actually pointed to some kind of palace intrigue that left Maduro in a panic. That factions within Maduro’s regime continue to look for some kind of exit ramp, even after the January decision to break the Barbados deal by banning Maria Corina Machado as the opposition’s candidate.

The international community can still do things to encourage the return of democracy. However, it recognizes the sad truth that once a dictatorship takes hold, it becomes incredibly difficult to dislodge. Therefore, it focuses on realistic options for managing the situation as it is. The Biden administration took a step or two down that road in 2023 when it eased the Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector and other areas. But U.S. officials continued to publicly link their decisions to progress on a democratic opening, apparently believing that it could “have it all.” That Goldilocks scenario is fully off the table now, after recent events. Pressure is coming from many quarters, including from some former presidents and political leaders from Latin America and Spain, to restore sanctions and start up the punitive cycle once again.

The alternative would be to say that Maduro has broken his end of the deal. Today, tough new sanctions on individuals within the regime will be announced, as well as new measures to support Venezuelans who continue to bravely push for democracy. However, a full restoration of sanctions would further hand control of the world’s largest oil reserves to malign actors, including China, Iran, and Russia, both now and in the future. It would worsen the economic situation on the ground in Venezuela, sending another wave of migrants across the southwest U.S. border. And to be frank, it would not do anything meaningful to weaken Maduro’s grip on power.

The cost to U.S. credibility would be substantial, perhaps unacceptably so. However, if everyone were to truly stop pretending, it might be the most honest and effective approach.