The stakes are high in Venezuela

The stakes are high in Venezuela
© Getty Images

Over the weekend, supporters of Venezuela’s interim president, Juan Guaido, tried to retrieve international humanitarian aid stockpiled in Colombia and Brazil. The man Guaido is trying to dislodge, the discredited but still de facto president Nicolas Maduro dispatched troops to prevent the aid from entering Venezuela.

The showdown between the unarmed democracy advocates supporting Guaido and the military, the national guard and armed criminal gangs, known as colectivos, still loyal to Maduro resulted in several deaths and hundreds injured. Several truckloads of food and medicine were set ablaze by Maduro loyalists.

The last few days have made clear that the authoritarian regime of Maduro is determined to hold on to power even if it means ruthlessly repressing and even starving their own people.

In reaction to the violence unleashed by Maduro, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBiden pressed about LGBT record during Iowa forum Republicans to hand out 'baseball cards' mocking Gary Peters in Michigan Pence taps former DHS spokeswoman as his new press secretary MORE flew to Colombia to meet with Guaido and the Lima Group, a coalition of Latin nations who recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s president. In a meeting with the Lima group, Pence stressed unconditional U.S. support for Guaido, promised more aid for the democracy advocates and countries sheltering Venezuelan refugees. He also announced additional sanctions on the Maduro regime.

Guaido, for his part, tweeted that it was time for the international community to consider “all options” for liberating the country — an ominous but, perhaps, inevitable development.

Over the last several years, as Venezuela’s economy collapsed and Maduro’s popular support evaporated, he and his circle have become increasingly authoritarian. Opposition has periodically surged — and been ruthlessly suppressed. The Maduro regime has survived and remains entrenched.

The current political crisis in Venezuela is the third since Maduro succeeded Hugo Chavez in 2013. In 2014 and 2017, we saw massive demonstrations against the Maduro regime in most of the country. Both times, the opposition failed to oust Maduro or convince him to change course. Those earlier efforts ran out of steam for several reasons, but three seem crucial.

First, no one leader existed around which the opposition could rally.

Second, despite widespread expressions of concern and, in some quarters, even censure, no substantive international support for the opposition materialized. While the imploding economy was widely reported, along with the surging criminal violence, the collapsing oil sector and the shortages of food and medicine, these reports did not produce international action.

Third, Maduro’s regime repressed demonstrators with just enough viciousness to intimidate the opposition, but not so much that the world community felt a “duty to protect.”

Things are different now. The economy has so deteriorated that three million Venezuelans have fled, most arriving destitute in Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. Absent a change of government many more will leave this year. Inflation reportedly reached a million percent last year. Reports suggest the injured taken to local hospitals over the weekend found those in calamitously bad shape.

Yet, Maduro still survives. While Venezuela has become essentially a failed state held together by force, with assistance from China, Russia and Cuba, neither the international community nor the democratic opposition has managed to dislodge Maduro or convince him to change direction.

The U.S. was the first government to recognize Guaido as the legitimate president. That precipitated a cascade of recognitions by others, especially in Latin America. Since that announcement, angrily rejected by Maduro, the U.S. has begun shipping humanitarian aid to the region.

While U.S. officials maintain that “all options are on the table,” it appears clear the U.S. hopes to see a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, as does the region. The question now, especially since Guaido’s tweet, has become what to do if censure, sanctions and isolation don’t work?

The stakes are high in Venezuela and the intransigence of the regime will test the resolve of Guaido, the U.S. and the Latin democracies militating for change. If the Maduro regime survives, the suffering of the Venezuelan people will become more intense, confidence in the region’s ability to affect positive change will be diminished and belief in the United States’ ability to shape events will suffer.

Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 until 2010. Now retired from the Department of State he is director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.