Latin America should face an inconvenient truth – it has no workable strategy to confront the Venezuelan crisis. When the region’s foreign ministers meet at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington on May 31, they will have an opportunity to develop such a joint approach. They should do so. The clock is ticking and the cost of inaction rises every day.
A month has passed since President Nicolás Maduro’s decision to withdraw from the OAS. In one stroke, he undermined regional leverage over his country, deprived the Venezuelan opposition of a powerful partner, and cleared the way to institute authoritarian rule. The announcement also imposed a deadline: In two years, Venezuela will formalize its withdrawal from the OAS. Regional powers have until then to develop an approach that can both pressure the regime and safeguard a democratic transition of power.
Despite the urgency, international efforts to effect change in Venezuela since then have been dispersed and insufficient. The U.S. has imposed individual sanctions on high-level government officials, but previous attempts have not deterred Maduro. France and some regional leaders have called to resume mediation efforts, but have offered no clarity on how to proceed. The United Nations Security Council held its first closed-door meeting to discuss the Venezuelan crisis, but it lacks the political will to propose a resolution. All told, these efforts have lacked the coordination and power of consensus necessary to face an escalating crisis that has resulted in the death of more than 50 people and the arrest of at least 1,600 since early April.
It is up to regional powers to act. Neighboring countries are increasingly worried about the turbulence in Venezuela, its impact on the population, and its potential to spill over. The OAS, despite its imperfections, remains the only legitimate forum where the Venezuelan issue can be tackled at a regional level. If OAS foreign ministers do not seize the chance to get a new strategy under way during the upcoming high-level meeting, the OAS risks jeopardizing its role as a credible actor.
The challenges are evident. Maduro’s decision to exit the Washington-based organization has conditioned the international community’s ability to act. Diplomatic sanctions are no longer an option, and efforts to achieve reconciliation through dialogue have not made progress. The region’s toolkit lacks enforcement mechanisms that can both pressure Maduro and allow for a peaceful transition to take place.
Given the failure of mediation efforts, economic sanctions have garnered support among some U.S. government officials. But economic sanctions won’t be effective at curbing the regime’s transgressions. They would further isolate Venezuela and could prove to be counterproductive.
U.S. individual sanctions, which already target high-ranking government officials like Vice President Tareck El Aissami, have not succeeded in deterring the government’s authoritarian course. On May 18, the U.S. took unilateral action by targeting eight principal members of the Maduro-aligned Supreme Court, including Chief Justice Maikel Moreno, citing the court’s role in stripping the National Assembly’s powers. Adding names to the list sends a strong signal that the U.S. is willing to take a harder line on Maduro, but it will not inflict enough pain to push the government to call for elections.
If individual sanctions fail, and escalation is warranted, the U.S. could impose sector-specific sanctions, such as those that would target the oil industry. These would pressure the government by directly cutting its revenue sources and aggravating the country’s economic recession. But Maduro has proven his willingness to make economic sacrifices to hold on to power. He has maintained his authoritarian course despite three straight years of recession that have caused chronic shortages of food and medical supplies, record-high inflation, and skyrocketing unemployment. Maduro could also turn to the country’s existing financial lifelines, China and Russia, increasing its dependency and decreasing the region’s leverage.
Crippling Venezuela’s already fragile economy with sectoral sanctions could also lead to mass migration that would destabilize its neighbors. Colombia and Brazil have already raised concerns about spillover risks and have strongly advocated for a negotiated solution.
The government’s political opposition, led by the Democratic Unity Coalition (MUD), might have an opportunity to stop Maduro next year, when the country is supposed to hold constitutionally mandated general elections. If they fail, a decades-long lack of effective progress could hurt their credibility and deepen fractures among its various parties. The opposition’s challenge will be to sustain the current popular wave of protests and keep up pressure on the streets.
The region will need to define a united approach that will empower the opposition’s efforts and facilitate a peaceful, supervised democratic transition. Maduro’s announcement of withdrawal from the OAS came in response to the most coordinated effort in recent history by Latin American countries to demand change in Venezuela. The region must recover that momentum and once again act collectively.
Expediency matters. Maduro has acted quickly to benefit from international isolation and draw more domestic power. On May 24, he officially approved the guidelines for a new handpicked “constituent” Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution that would strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its power. Missing the two-year window while Venezuela is still in the OAS will allow Maduro to become more entrenched. It will also exponentially increase the cost of his eventual removal – in terms of domestic and regional stability, and in the number of Venezuelan lives.
Can the OAS and the international community come up with a viable plan in time? The lack of consensus following the OAS exit on a common strategy, despite Maduro’s authoritarian resolve and escalating violence, does not offer an optimistic outlook. OAS members must confront this reality as they convene, and work towards a new strategy. Time is running out to achieve a democratic transition that can set Venezuela on the course to recovery.
Riaza is a public programs associate for Americas Society/Council of the Americas, and Alonso is a correspondent for El País in Washington, D.C.