OPINION | Venezuela a powder keg that may explode into the next Cuba
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The country’s Supreme Court president is a convicted murderer. A U.S. federal court indicted its minister of the interior for drug trafficking. The U.S. Treasury Department named its vice president a drug kingpin. Two nephews of the nation's first lady are behind bars, convicted of attempting to transport 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. The country’s president faces a lawsuit before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, filed by 100 Latin American politicians, which accuses him of committing human rights abuses.

This seems like a storyline from the TV series “Narcos,” but the influence of Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel in 1990s Colombia pales in comparison to the power of today’s Venezuelan dictatorship. Even casual observers are aware the oil-rich country, not long ago the wealthiest economy in Latin America, is on the verge of becoming a failed state.

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Venezuela has the world’s worst inflation, murderous violence has made it one of the most dangerous places on earth, malnutrition is rampant and children are dying of minor illnesses because they can’t get basic medicines. The country’s economy, already badly weakened by the socialist policies of its former leader, the late Hugo Chavez, was devastated when oil prices plummeted from all-time highs in 2014.

 

The current president, Nicolas Maduro, and his governing socialist party suffered an overwhelming defeat in parliamentary elections in 2015. But Maduro refused to acknowledge the National Assembly’s powers and used the Venezuelan Supreme Court, packed with Maduro loyalists, to invalidate all congressional actions.

When the court attempted to fully take over the powers of the legislature this spring, protests broke out across the country and they have not abated for almost four months. The Maduro government reacted by intensely repressing the protests, leading to an international outcry from human rights organizations. More than a hundred people have been killed, thousands injured and thousands more arrested, with many suffering torture at the hands of the government repressive apparatus.

Now, Maduro is trying to cement his power by holding a rigged constituent assembly election. The assembly’s mission would be to adopt a new constitution that would eliminate the opposition-controlled National Assembly, perpetuate Maduro’s hold on power, eliminate any vestiges of democracy and establish a Cuba-style, one-party communist dictatorship.

With the constituent assembly “election" scheduled for July 30, no time is left for waffling from the international community. Anarchy in Venezuela, a possible civil war, or the consolidation of a "new Cuba” pose serious risks for the national security of the Unites States and the whole hemisphere.

First, the establishment of a communist dictatorship would trigger a major refugee crisis. Venezuela’s neighbors, Brazil and Colombia, are already struggling under the influx of Venezuelan refugees. Venezuelans, for the first time in history, represent the largest number of asylum seekers in the U.S., exceeding China and Syria.

Diego Arria, a prominent Venezuelan politician and former ambassador to the United Nations who lives in exile, has estimated that 8 to 10 million people could seek to flee the country. Even if the exodus is only a quarter of that number, the refugee crisis would dwarf the size of the Cuban and Haitian migration to the U.S.

Second, a CNN investigation found that Venezuelan authorities have likely issued hundreds of passports to people who are not Venezuelan, including passports and IDs linked to Venezuelan Vice President Tarek El Aissami “that were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people linked to the terrorist group, Hezbollah.”

Those passports allow visa-free entry to 130 countries, including the European Union. Venezuela also maintains very close, collaborative ties with Syria and Iran, two of the four nations designated state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. State Department. The country has also become a strong ally of China and Russia.

Third, according to a Venezuelan military presentation seen by Reuters, Venezuela possesses 5000 “MANPADS,” the shoulder-fired missiles capable of downing jetliners. If they were to fall into terrorist hands, they would pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. commercial aviation.

Fourth, Venezuela sits on the world’s largest proven oil reserves and is one of the largest oil exporters. Anarchy in Venezuela could seriously disrupt the world’s oil markets.

Fifth, if Maduro stays in power, Venezuela will continue to be an important link in the international drug trade. The U.S. must take an active leadership role with regional powers to pressure the Maduro government to first allow a transition to a national unity government and then to fair presidential and local elections. The multilateral diplomatic effort should be spearheaded by regional leaders with the full support of the United States.

A unilateral approach by the United States, imposing Iran-style sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports or access to world financial markets could, in the short run, hurt the already suffering Venezuelan people more than the members of the ruling repressive class. It would also allow Maduro to focus his energy on Cuba-style, anachronistic rhetoric that attacks U.S. “imperialism.”

He has already reacted to U.S. warnings by redoubling his anti-Americanism, calling the warnings “insolent threats by a xenophobic and racist empire.” Focusing on imagined Yankee intervention still has resonance among the true Chavista believers and could help rather than hurt Maduro. A multilateral sanctions approach targeting a broad swath of the dictatorship’s leaders could be more effective.

A former Chavez finance minister has said members of the Chavez and Maduro governments have absconded with $300 billion dollars from government coffers in just the past decade. A U.S. government official told me the Treasury Department is aware of “multiple” government officials who have amassed fortunes in the “multiple billions of dollars.”

Much of that money is invested in the U.S., Spain and Switzerland. Freezing those assets and those of family members, while shutting down their access to the international financial system is a first step. Cancelling visas of government officials and family members and expelling those who live in the U.S. and ally nations is a second (many relations of government officials are living luxurious lives in the U.S. and Europe thanks to stolen government monies).

The U.S. should also threaten to make public all that information. Pressuring Venezuelan government leaders financially, while offering a deal that would allow them to leave the country and not face prosecution, may be the price that must be paid to facilitate the end of the criminal Maduro regime.

Odious as it may be to allow drug traffickers, torturers and violators of human rights to walk free, more odious is the thought that the Maduro government could survive and, like the Castros in Cuba, consolidate a communist, totalitarian military dictatorship that would violate the human rights of a people for generations.

Antonio Mora is a former news anchor for “Good Morning America,” former host of Al Jazeera America’s primetime international news hour. He is both a Venezuelan and American lawyer who appears regularly on television as a Venezuelan-affairs analyst.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.