The world must turn back Venezuela's growing dictatorship

Over the weekend, Venezuela succumbed to dictatorship. It’s going to take a concerted international effort to reverse this ugly development.

On July 30, Socialist strongman Nicolas Maduro held a fraudulent and highly unpopular election. As a result, all 545 seats of a new “Constituent Assembly’ are being filled with candidates hand-picked by Maduro’s National Socialist Party (PSUV). The Constituent Assembly is empowered to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, expel members of the opposition from the current National Assembly, and consolidate all power in the executive branch.

On the day of the election, Maduro’s security forces killed 16 innocent demonstrators and bystanders. Videos showed National Guardsmen pouring live fire into unarmed crowds and lobbing teargas into hospitals and apartment buildings.

In 121 days of antigovernment protests, government forces have killed 130 innocents and detained 3,500 demonstrators. More than 430 protestors remain incarcerated. 

Never has the Venezuelan government been so dangerously defiant of the people’s will.

This is unprecedented in Venezuelan history. Maduro’s jails hold a record number of political prisoners. Never has the Venezuelan government been so dangerously defiant of the people’s will.

Or of international opinion: to date, 40 countries refuse to accept the sham vote. Eleven countries of the Western Hemisphere including the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru as well  as the  European Parliament. Multilateral organizations like the Organization of American States (OAS) and Mercosur (Southern Common Market) have condemned the results as well. (Though Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has spoken strongly against the sham elections, the U.N. has maintained its traditional weak-kneed, silent approach.)

The Trump administration tried to warn Maduro off this anti-democratic course. Prior to the election, Washington froze the U.S. assets of some of his closest political cronies—13 current and former Venezuelan government officials—and barred them from traveling to the U.S.

Still, Maduro persisted, and U.S. Treasury sanctions have been extended to him as a result.

The point is that Maduro’s political coup stands on shaky ground. Only 19.5 million Venezuelans are registered to vote. Maduro’s approval rating stand at 15 percent. Laughably, he claims to have received 8.1 million votes. Exit polling, however, indicates that only a paltry 2.5 million ballots were actually submitted. Chalk up the “extra” 5.6 million votes to fraud. 

Of course, Maduro had help in strangling democracy in Venezuela; most of it came from Havana.

Cuban officials have insinuated themselves more and more into Venezuela’s government for years. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro aptly describes Cuba’s presence in Venezuela as that of an “occupational army.”  Cuba and the rest of Venezuela’s support group of regional despots—the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Nicaragua—all stand behind Maduro’s illegitimate power grab. Maduro reportedly allows only Cuban body guards to protect him.

Cuba’s long, sad history of political arrests is replicating itself in Venezuela. While under house arrest for failing health, opposition leaders and former Caracas mayors Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo Lopez were snatched from their homes in the middle of the night by Venezuelan intelligence services. Both previously spent time in Venezuela’s prisons. Ledezma was released in 2015 after two months. Lopez was not so lucky; he spent a grueling three years in a military prison where he was physically and emotionally tortured before his brief release earlier this year.

To this day, their families receive death threats and are routinely victimized by government vigilante mobs.  

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet the wives of these two brave men. Their family’s strength in the face of brutality is heroic. The international community must demand their unconditional release.

President Trump has recognized that Maduro crossed an irreversible line. His administration’s pivot away from Obama’s failed “strategic patience” strategy with Maduro has been the proper course of action.

But now, the U.S. must ratchet up the pressure on Maduro more than ever—and we cannot do this alone. It will take a coordinated effort of many nations.

The good news is: the number of other nations on the side of the Venezuelan people is growing. A recent decision by Colombia, Mexico and Panama to levy parallel sanctions against the 13 Venezuelan government officials the U.S. targeted is an exceptionally positive development and a testament to President Trump’s leadership on this issue.

But there needs to be more. There must also be a diplomatic cost to the Latin America nations not fulfilling their obligations to Venezuela’s democracy as outlined the InterAmerican Democratic Charter.

America cannot be forced to go at this alone.

Ana Quintana is a policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy, specializing in Latin American issue.