A Small Step From Disaster in Venezuela

Is there an app for when you're outvoted?

Photographer: ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images

The misery and impending chaos in Venezuela have prompted an international response that seems almost laughably disproportionate: a special meeting of the Organization of American States merely to present a report about Venezuela. It feels feeble and futile -- but it’s just this kind of patient diplomacy that stands the best chance of containing and repairing Venezuela’s disaster.

Citizens of the country with the world’s biggest oil reserves are rioting for food and dying for want of basic medicines. Meanwhile, President Nicolas Maduro is doing all he can to neuter the opposition in the legislature that wants to recall him from office. Public frustration threatens to metastasize into violent unrest, with repercussions for neighbors near and far. Venezuelan applications for asylum in the U.S. are spiking.

Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez have routinely used the bogeyman of U.S. intervention to justify their repression, so imposing broad economic sanctions won’t necessarily make him more open to dialogue. And not only is Venezuela’s economy already in tatters, but Maduro’s willingness to sacrifice the well-being of ordinary Venezuelans to keep his Rolex-clad clique in power is all too clear.

QuickTake Venezuela’s Revolution

That leaves the winding and less satisfying path of diplomacy as the best way forward. New governments in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru are more inclined to work with the U.S. and less tolerant of Venezuela’s misbehavior.

What’s needed are smart strategies and new players to make diplomacy more effective. China -- Venezuela’s biggest benefactor in recent years -- has a major financial interest in persuading Maduro to change his economic policies; it’s also in a better position to provide humanitarian assistance that Venezuela has rejected from other sources. At the same time, the U.S. should quietly make clear to Venezuela’s military that limited sanctions on officials for corruption and human rights abuses can be quickly expanded. It should also step up its efforts to help Caribbean countries wean themselves from the cut-rate Venezuelan oil deliveries that have influenced their voting patterns at the OAS and the United Nations.

Venezuela’s neighbors and colleagues in the OAS, meanwhile, need to make sure that any “dialogue” between Maduro and the domestic opposition has buy-in from all parties. In addition to supporting pro-democracy efforts at the OAS, they should apply pressure on Venezuela in Mercosur, the regional trade bloc which has a “democratic clause.” And if Venezuela refuses to change its undemocratic ways, the OAS could always take the humiliating step of expelling it.

Maduro will likely blunt any recall referendum until next year. But focusing on his removal misses the point. By itself, his departure will not correct nearly two decades of deepening economic mismanagement and political repression. Reversing that will take years of negotiation and mediation -- a political process even more demanding and unspectacular than the diplomatic engagement now urgently required of its neighbors.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.