When I was living in Washington, DC in the early 2000s there was a steady stream of Venezuelan opposition leaders who passed through town warning (correctly) about the dangers of chavismo and claiming they had inside information that President Hugo Chávez couldn’t last much longer. Their insistence that political change was just around the corner led to a Washington-insider joke. It went something like this: then-President George W. Bush falls into a coma and wakes up 20 years later. He immediately turns to his advisors and says, “What’s changed? Is that guy Putin still in power?” His advisors smile and proudly say, “Nope, he was voted out of office long ago in a color revolution.” Inspired, Bush continues: “What about that brutal theocracy in Iran. Is it still there?” Again the advisors smile, “Nope. Thankfully a combination of sanctions and popular protests brought the Arab Spring to Iran.” Then Bush, encouraged, asks “And what about that crazy guy in Venezuela, Chávez, is he still in power?” At this point the advisors look around guiltily and say, “Well, Mr. President he is still in office, but we have inside information that he’s not going to last much longer.”
Of course, the father of Venezuela’s tragic mess, Hugo Chávez, passed before the disaster he created came home to fully roost, but his brutal, incompetent successor, Nicolas Maduro, manages to cling to power despite a mind-boggling collapse of the economy, healthcare system, society, electric grid, and even potable water system. Now, more than two months after there appeared to be a long-overdue broad international consensus around a viable exit strategy, we are still waiting.
The Trump administration is to be applauded for working with the international community, and the Grupo de Lima in particular, to recognize National Assembly president Juan Guaidó as the constitutional interim president. The democratic opposition’s move to both unite behind one leader and use his swearing in as a rallying cry against Nicolas Maduro’s fraudulent re-election—as well as the preceding assaults on freedom and institutional checks on his rule—was a masterful stroke. For years, the international community has stood on the sidelines as first Chávez and then Maduro undermined elections, the rule of law, the integrity of the military, local government and freedom of expression as they converted the state into a criminal enterprise.
Now, though, after the euphoria and optimism of the events of January 23, we’re again stuck in a standoff. Despite calls from Guaidó and the White House, the military has stayed firmly aligned with Maduro. That was always a risky gamble given the corruption of the armed forces’ high command and its deep ties with and penetration by Cuba and Russia. Now it has gotten even riskier; last week, Russia off-loaded 100 troops and military equipment from two planes in Caracas. Suddenly, what should have been a regional humanitarian, human rights issue has turned into a geopolitical standoff with global ramifications.
If the White House has a plan B, it hasn’t shown it. Instead, from the beginning it went all in with plan A, quickly slapping a full oil embargo on Maduro government, imposing sanctions on financial institutions linked to the government and its officials, and expanding U.S. Treasury sanctions on friends and associates of the regime—now totaling more than 600 individuals in Venezuela. And still we wait.
The next step has to be getting other countries to impose their own sanctions. With the exception of Europe, Canada and Panama, most of other 50-plus governments that have backed Guaidó have been slow in imposing their own sanctions. It’s time they step up. At the very least they too should begin to revoke the visas of Maduro government officials and freeze any local bank accounts of the corrupt circle in and around the government. (It’s too late now, but this should have been one of the first steps instead of the U.S. leading the charge.)
As the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly and Supreme Court lift Guaidó’s immunity, potentially in preparation to arrest him, broad international sanctions are more important than ever. Huffing and puffing from the White House that worse sanctions are still to come only lightens the responsibility of other partners to make good on their commitment to a democratic outcome in Venezuela. Having other countries take the lead in tightening sanctions on the Maduro regime will also reduce the dangerous tension between the U.S. and Russia and demonstrate that, more than a warmed-over superpower rivalry or re-birth of the Monroe Doctrine, this is a struggle of liberal democracies against rogue, authoritarian governments seeking not just to protect one another but undermine the liberal international order.
In the meantime, the members of the International Contact Group and the Grupo de Lima that recently met in Ecuador must immediately state a realistic deadline for free and fair elections in Venezuela and the potential costs—economic, diplomatic and penal—should the Maduro government not agree to a final date and the creation of an interim government to oversee that process. Failure to establish a set of deadlines and the costs if they’re ignored will only allow the Maduro government to wait out the clock, something it has done very well until now with tragic consequences, not only for Venezuela’s citizens but for its neighbors as well.
I was reminded of the 2000s joke about Chávez’s imminent departure when I watched a recent press conference with the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams. During the press conference, Abrams said that he had information that the opposition is in regular contact with high level members of the military. I’ve heard that before. It’s not that different from what the opposition was saying when I was in Washington. There was always some supposed set of conversations that were going on, plotting change that never happened. This time, though, there is a possibility of real change against a high risk global standoff. It’s going to take more than rumors, though, to make democratic change happen.