Obama Needs to Step Up the Pressure on Venezuela

Maduro can't hear you.

Photographer: Carlos Becerra

In yet another stunning anti-democratic maneuver, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has managed to have any recall referendum effectively delayed until next year. In response, President Barack Obama needs to revisit U.S. policy toward the Western Hemisphere’s most dysfunctional nation.

Until even a few years ago, some U.S. “strategic patience” toward Venezuela made sense. High oil prices cushioned the country with the world’s largest reserves from its increasingly harebrained economic policies, and from outside pressure over its political repression, high-level collusion with narco-trafficking, and other bad behavior. And the reflexive anti-Americanism of Chavismo -- the idiosyncratic ideology championed by the late Hugo Chavez -- had sympathizers in influential neighbors such as Argentina and Brazil.

Things have changed. Oil prices have collapsed, and Venezuela faces triple-digit inflation and a third year of recession. Shortages of food, medicine and basic goods have immiserated its citizens and created a potential humanitarian crisis.

Maduro has responded to public discontent and a landslide opposition victory in last year’s legislative elections by intensifying his subversion of democratic institutions. Last month, for instance, his well-packed Supreme Court annulled much of the new legislature’s work. And now the country’s Electoral Authority has set unprecedented hurdles for any recall vote; by delaying the process, it has also all but ensured that even if a recall succeeds, Maduro’s ruling party will control the presidency until new elections in late 2018.

Venezuela's Revolution

Without meaningful outside pressure, that could mean two more years of deepening misery, corruption and repression, with ugly consequences beyond Venezuela’s borders.

Thankfully, Chavismo’s allure has ebbed regionally and globally. New governments in Argentina, Brazil and Peru are more willing to criticize Venezuela. If Venezuela fails to comply with the human rights and immigration standards set by the Mercosur trade bloc, for instance, it should be suspended. Likewise, the obstruction of the recall should spur the Organization of American States to begin the process that could lead to Venezuela’s suspension.

The U.S. should take up the recent call by Peru’s president to offer Venezuelans humanitarian aid. But it should also step up sanctions on Venezuelan officials. Even as arbitrary detentions and abuses have increased, the U.S. has not widened its net beyond the seven officials whose assets were frozen in a March 2015 executive order; the State Department still says “more than 60” Venezuelans are subject to visa bans, similar to what it was saying a year and a half ago. For starters, it should target more officials for rampant public corruption, which Obama’s executive order also covers. Among other things, that would further chill the willingness of financial institutions to do business with an increasingly unsavory government -- one that already teeters on default.

Of course, Venezuela’s future should ultimately be decided at the ballot box. By holding the country’s leaders to account, Venezuela’s neighbors can help ensure that the outcome of any election is not a foregone conclusion.

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