Sanctions should target officials, not the country
VENEZUELA claims to have more oil than Saudi Arabia, yet its citizens are hungry. An astonishing 93% of them say they cannot afford the food they need, and three-quarters have lost weight in the past year. The regime that caused this preventable tragedy professes great love for the poor. Yet its officials have embezzled billions, making Venezuela the most corrupt country in Latin America, as well as the most ineptly governed. It is a textbook example of why democracy matters: people with bad governments should be able to throw the bums out. That is perhaps why President Nicolás Maduro is so eager to smother what little is left of democracy in Venezuela.
On July 30th, barring a last-minute change of mind, Mr Maduro will hold a rigged election to rubber-stamp the creation of a hand-picked constituent assembly whose aim is to perpetuate his unpopular state-socialist regime (see article). It will complete the destruction of the powers of parliament, now controlled by the opposition, and wreck the integrity of a presidential election due next year, which, if it were free and fair, Mr Maduro would surely lose. Opponents say the assembly will install Cuban-style communism. At the very least, its creation will provoke more violence in a country where the streets are already choked with tear gas and littered with buckshot from police shotguns. In almost four months of protests, more than 100 people have died; hundreds more have been locked up for political reasons. All this infuriates Venezuelans. It should alarm the outside world, too.
By the end of this year Venezuela’s economic collapse since 2012 will be the steepest in modern Latin American history. Income per person is now back where it was in the 1950s. The main cause of this calamity is ideological. Following the lead of his late mentor, Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro spends public money lavishly, especially on his supporters. Weak oil prices and inept management mean he cannot pay his bills. So he prints money and blames speculators for the resulting inflation, which is expected to exceed 1,000% this year. The black-market price for US dollars is now about 900 times the official rate. Price controls and the expropriation of private firms have led to shortages of food and medicine. With hospitals bare of supplies, the maternal mortality rate jumped by 66% last year. Officials flagrantly profiteer from their access to hard currency and basic goods. Venezuela has become a favoured route for drug-trafficking and is awash with arms.
Some left-wingers, such as Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, imagine that Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” is a promising experiment in social justice. Tell that to the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled to neighbouring countries. As the crisis worsens, their number will rise. That makes Venezuela’s government a threat to the region as well as its own people.
What can be done? The best solution would be a negotiated transition. Mr Maduro would finish his term but would respect the constitution and parliament, free political prisoners and guarantee that overdue regional elections, and the presidential contest next year, take place fairly. However, an attempt at such a negotiation failed last year, and there is no sign that Mr Maduro and his cronies will voluntarily surrender power.
Those who want to save Venezuela have limited influence, but they are not helpless. The opposition, a variegated alliance long on personal ambition and short of cohesion, needs to do far more to become a credible alternative government. That includes agreeing on a single leader. Some in the opposition think all that is needed to trigger the regime’s collapse is to ramp up the protests. That looks fanciful. Mr Maduro can still count on the army, with which he co-governs. In Venezuela’s command economy he controls such money as there is, and retains the backing of a quarter of Venezuelans—enough to put his own people on the streets. And he has the advice of Cuba’s security officials, who are experts in selective repression.
Aim at the regime, not its victims
Latin America has at last woken up to the threat. Venezuela is far more isolated than it was, having been suspended from the Mercosur trade group. But it was able to avoid a similar suspension from the Organisation of American States (OAS) last month with the backing of its ideological allies and some Caribbean island-states to which it offers cheap oil. The United States should have applied more diplomatic muscle to sway the vote at the OAS. President Donald Trump is now considering broad sanctions such as barring the import of Venezuelan oil, or banning American companies from working in Venezuela’s oil industry. That would be a mistake: Mr Maduro would find new buyers for his oil within months. In the meantime, ordinary people would suffer more than the regime’s loyalists. And broad sanctions might strengthen the regime, because Mr Maduro’s empty claim that he faces “economic warfare” from “imperial” America would at last have some substance.
More promisingly, on July 26th the Trump administration announced individual sanctions on a further 13 Venezuelan officials involved in the constituent assembly, or suspected of corruption or abusing human rights. These officials have had visas withdrawn, and American banks and firms are barred from doing business with them. This effort could be intensified by pressing banks to disclose embarrassing information about officials who have stashed stolen public funds abroad. The European Union and Latin America should join this effort.
It will not, in itself, force the regime to change. But the stick of individual sanctions should be combined with the offer of negotiations, brokered by foreign governments. Any final deal may have to include legal immunity for senior Venezuelan officials. That is distasteful, but may be necessary to achieve a peaceful transition back to democracy.
The alternative could be a slide into generalised violence, for which Mr Maduro would be squarely responsible. Already there are signs of anarchy, with radicals on both sides slipping loose from their leaders’ control. Rather than a second Cuba or a tropical China, chavista Venezuela, with its corruption, gangs and ineptitude, risks becoming something much worse.