Putin's Russia is propping up the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela
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Under Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Candidates pile on front-runner Sanders at Democratic debate Bloomberg attacks Sanders over reports of Russian interference MORE, Russia is increasingly working to exert its influence and undermine U.S. interests around the world, including in the Western Hemisphere. This is particularly clear in Putin’s efforts to prop up the brutal, illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela.

Just last week, Putin announced that he was sending his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to Caracas to help validate Nicolás Maduro's nonsense claim to legitimacy.

America now finds itself in a moment reminiscent of the Cold War era. Russia is expanding its involvement in our hemisphere, spreading its malign influence, and exploiting proxies like private military contractors throughout Latin America to advance Putin’s destructive objectives and protect Russia’s clients in Havana, Managua and Caracas. For instance, the Russian mercenary group known as Wagner has been deployed to Venezuela to beef up protection for Maduro and conduct other secret missions in the country. Their presence in the nation and elsewhere has had destabilizing effects in the region.

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Since 2015, over 4 million Venezuelans, seeking safe haven and new opportunities to improve or rebuild their lives, have fled to nearby countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil -- one of the largest migration crises in the history of our hemisphere. The economic repercussions have been similarly severe; Venezuela’s hyperinflation has soared to 10 million percent since 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund. Shortages of food, medicine, water and power have kept many Venezuelans in survival mode, and, thanks to Maduro, Venezuela currently faces an ongoing health emergency.

The illegitimate Maduro regime continues to violate the fundamental rights of the Venezuelan people and now holds over 400 of them as political prisoners. We have a moral duty to condemn and continue standing up against these arbitrary arrests. The will of the Venezuelan people and Interim President Juan Guaidó, who recently visited Colombia, the EU, the U.S. and Canada, are clear indications of their desire to see a free and prosperous Venezuela.

Maduro and his corrupt cronies have turned Venezuela’s vast natural resources into a source of income to sustain their criminal enterprise. They are also implicated in a multi-billion dollar money laundering scheme tied to several transnational organized criminal groups in the region. Battles between these groups and the military over control of key mining regions have also reportedly precipitated an increase in violence and human trafficking.

By any metric, it is clear that Venezuela has spiraled into a regional catastrophe, one fueled by the foreign meddling of Russia, China and Cuba. Moscow in particular has systematically undermined democratic institutions throughout Latin America for decades -- a role made blatantly clear from the financial and military assistance it devotes to propping up the Maduro regime.

Such flagrant international cronyism is not cheap, though. Russia has invested billions of dollars in Latin America; in Venezuela alone, its investments total nearly $25 billion, in the forms of loans and credit lines in exchange for partial ownership of Caracas’s oil reserves.

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The U.S. must be clear-eyed about the situation at hand: Putin will support the Maduro regime at nearly any cost, so long as it thwarts Venezuela’s return to democracy, frustrates U.S. policy goals, and undermines the stability and security of democracies in Latin America.

The Trump administration should be commended for its efforts to support the Venezuelan people in their struggle to restore democratic order. The U.S. must demand the release of American hostages and enforce the use of all appropriate actions to impose targeted sanctions against corrupt officials within the Maduro criminal enterprise and those outside Venezuela responsible for supporting the regime. The U.S. should also completely cut off Venezuela’s access to American and foreign financial institutions. We must urge our international allies to follow suit.

Our allies in the Lima Group must continue to play a significant role and impose sanctions against the Maduro criminal entity and Maduro’s extended family. Mexico -- an important ally and partner of the United States on issues like security, migration, and maintaining the regional stability of Central America -- should step to the forefront and rejoin this coalition. Regional allies must work together to counter malign actors like Russia from exerting any further influence and prevent the erosion of democracy and stability in the hemisphere.

Rubio is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.