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Latin America, US can agree on Venezuela

 

February 4, 2018



Having driven his country and its once-rich oil industry into a ditch, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is now pushing for snap elections that would allow him to lock in another term.

The U.S. can halt Venezuela’s slide toward autocracy, if it convinces other countries to do more of the heavy lifting.

That’s easier said than done. Getting Venezuela’s neighbors, who face their own troubles and elections, to ratchet up the pressure on Maduro will require canny behind-the-scenes diplomacy. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s six-day trip to Latin America should be the start of a sustained — and respectful — campaign of greater U.S. engagement.

Opinion polls suggest that any free and fair presidential contest would be the opposition’s to lose. But Maduro has battered his opponents into disarray, jailing rival leaders, disqualifying opposition parties and using outright fraud to discourage its voters from casting ballots. His snap election proposal, which was made by an unconstitutional puppet assembly he engineered, has roiled talks between the two sides aimed at hammering out a political solution to the crisis.

Venezuela’s neighbors have scorned Maduro’s election pitch. The so-called Lima Group, formed last August by 12 regional governments to address Venezuela’s unraveling, has said the precipitous timetable makes “democratic, transparent and credible presidential elections ... impossible.”

Meanwhile, ordinary Venezuelans are increasingly starved of food and medicine, let alone hope. The country with the world’s biggest oil reserves now verges on a failed state, exporting refugees and crime and sapping the hemisphere’s economy.

Despite fraud and repression during recent gubernatorial and municipal elections — and the subsequent blacklisting of its most popular leaders — the opposition must unify and forge ahead.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s neighbors and players like the European Union must make clear that sanctions will intensify if Maduro persists in his anti-democratic behavior. With contracting output and an inflation rate headed toward 13,000 percent, Venezuela is vulnerable to greater economic pressure. Solidarity on that score will signal to China, Maduro’s increasingly reluctant economic benefactor, that he’s a risky bet.

The U.S. has the greatest economic leverage over Venezuela, and its sanctions have already triggered a de facto debt default. But waving Uncle Sam’s big stick too vigorously could crack a united diplomatic front.

President Trump’s unwise bluster about military intervention in Venezuela is a case in point; his policies on immigration, trade and narcotics have also sown regional discord.

As has become custom, Tillerson will have to spend his trip cleaning up messes his boss has made. The latest high-level departure from a demoralized State Department — Undersecretary Tom Shannon, its most seasoned Latin America hand — won’t make that task any easier.

But the good news is that the region’s changing political complexion has made it more open to cooperation with a U.S. willing to treat it as an equal partner.

Tillerson has so far defied predictions of his own Rexit. If he can shore up the coalition on behalf of democracy in Venezuela, some of his critics might even want him to stick around.

— Bloomberg News

 

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