Democrats should stand for democracy in Venezuela — and democratic values in America

Venezuelans take to the streets of Caracas on Jan. 23 to protest the government of President Nicolás Maduro. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
Venezuelans take to the streets of Caracas on Jan. 23 to protest the government of President Nicolás Maduro. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

You can’t blame strongmen around the world for being a bit confused this week.

After two years of showering praise on the likes of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi autocrat Mohammed bin Salman, the Trump administration last Wednesday issued a statement demanding democracy for the people of Venezuela and calling for the removal of President Nicolás Maduro. At this moment of crisis, Democrats should not let our anger at Trump’s double standard goad us into advocating for a retraction of our country’s commitment to supporting democracy and dignity for people in Venezuela and around the world.

First, let’s get one thing straight: There should no longer be any debate about Maduro’s lack of democratic legitimacy. The 2018 Venezuelan presidential election was marred by charges of fraud, vote-rigging and intimidation of the opposition. In addition to steadily eroding Venezuela’s democratic institutions, Maduro has condemned the Venezuelan people to a humanitarian nightmare of rampant inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and pervasive insecurity through corruption, mismanagement and repression. Standards of living have plummeted, and some 3 million Venezuelans have fled to other countries.

The Trump administration is right to put restoring Venezuelan democracy at the center of our approach to this crisis. A return to a stable democracy is in the interest of the Venezuelan people, the United States and the hemisphere. And to give Trump’s team credit where it is due, it has been heartening to see, for once, the United States act in concert with other nations in building the case for a foreign policy objective. For any U.S. policy to succeed in Venezuela, it must involve consistent collaboration with other governments in the Americas.

However, these laudable objectives are also accompanied by risks, some of them self-inflicted. Publicly recognizing an alternative president put the credibility of the United States behind someone who is not running the country, and this action stands in a long line of bold foreign policy pronouncements from the Trump administration, such as the end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the ejection of Iran from Syria, that are not backed by realistic implementation plans.

Chest-thumping declarations that melt away over time weaken American power and credibility. In Venezuela, if the armed forces continue to back Maduro, then last week’s move may come to look feckless, while offering Maduro the opportunity to rally his domestic and foreign backers against U.S. intervention. Reckless talk of military options only compounds this problem — there is no credible U.S. military option to invade Venezuela, and it would be dangerous and destabilizing to do so.

The alternative, though, is not for the United States to stand idly by while Maduro continues to plunge Venezuela into destitution and chaos. Simply because democracy promotion is fraught with peril does not mean Democrats should shy away from articulating the right way to advocate for human rights in Venezuela, or around the world.

The United States should be working with international partners to support negotiations with all of Venezuela’s factions in pursuit of a transitional government that can hold new elections. In addition to being led by a coalition of like-minded countries, that effort will have to include dialogue with countries such as Cuba and China who have influence in Caracas. We should continue to tighten sanctions on Maduro and those around him, and work with other countries to ensure that they have the maximum impact. We should also be working in forums that this administration has abandoned — the U.N. Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court — to further isolate Maduro and open new avenues for accountability.

To demonstrate that our concern for the Venezuelan people is not just a political talking point, we should provide them with more support. In the United States, we can grant Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans who are demonstrating the necessity of asylum for vulnerable populations. In Latin America, we should be providing more support for countries such as Colombia, which is hosting huge populations of Venezuelans, while also putting a substantial package of humanitarian assistance on the table for the moment when Venezuela has a government that can receive it.

Finally, the administration must recognize the troubled history of U.S. intervention in Latin America, which includes support for Central American contras and death squads in the 1980s, engineered in part by Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s new envoy for Venezuela. Public bluster about military options and private leaks about coup planning only serve to undercut the legitimacy of the democracy that we should support.

More broadly, Democrats should step into the void left by this administration’s failure to stand up for democracy and against the authoritarian tide flooding the globe. That means being more consistent in speaking out for human rights everywhere, while providing support for independent media, civil society and democratic institutions — not just doing so when a domestic political interest is served.

No modern U.S. president has done more to promote autocracy and undermine democratic movements all over the world than Donald Trump. Our democratic allies, subject to regular broadsides from this president, likely winced last week watching Secretary of State Mike Pompeo call on them to stand with “the forces of freedom.” And Americans wondered where this sudden concern for democratic norms had been for the past two years, as Trump relentlessly attacked the independence of law enforcement and the judiciary here at home.

All Americans should be rooting for a return to democracy in Venezuela. We should also insist upon a return to a U.S. government that embodies democratic values at home, and a foreign policy that uses the right tools to stand for them abroad.

Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ben Rhodes served as deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration.

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