We Must Not Fail the Venezuelan People

Venezuelans marched against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas this month. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times
Venezuelans marched against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas this month. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Venezuela has been part of my life, both politically and personally, for over four decades. I was a friend of Rómulo Betancourt, the founding father of Venezuelan democracy; of Carlos Andrés Pérez, who governed Venezuela during two terms; and of all the country’s democratically elected presidents. My bond to the country was so strong and close that, following the failed coup attempt against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, asked me to be his personal representative in Venezuela. As expected, Mr. Chávez rejected the appointment.

I have always viewed the relationship between Spain and Venezuela as particularly meaningful. Venezuela was a safe haven for political exiles fleeing dictatorships in Latin America, but over the years it also welcomed hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens seeking refuge, whether as exiles or immigrants. For this reason, as both a government leader and an ordinary citizen committed to the values of democracy and progress, I have dedicated time and effort to helping the Venezuelan people regain their freedoms.

Nicolás Maduro has turned Venezuela into a failed state. We must not fail the Venezuelan people, and we must help them regain the democracy they deserve.

Mr. Maduro has destroyed the productive sector of this resource-rich country, where nearly 90 percent of the population now lives in poverty. His leadership has resulted in severe shortages of basic food and medical supplies and sparked unprecedented levels of hyperinflation. His policies have prompted the greatest exodus in the history of Latin America, stripped the country’s institutions of their democratic guarantees and established a tyrannical state, where opponents are deprived of the most basic human rights, including the right to live.

The majority of democracies in the Western world have deemed the elections held on May 20 as fraudulent and illegal. The National Assembly, which is the only democratically elected institution remaining in the country, was right to designate Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. Questioning his legitimacy is tantamount to questioning democracy. It is a mind-boggling paradox, indeed. Mr. Maduro’s opposition is demanding that he comply with the Bolivarian Constitution established during Chávez’s leadership, and Mr. Maduro is violating it at every turn.

We now have an opportunity to restore democracy in Venezuela. This will not be an easy task. Mr. Maduro wields the power of weapons, while the National Assembly has legitimacy, but lacks the influence and authority that come from its government institutions. How can this impossible imbalance be corrected?

First, with solid, unflinching unity. The democratic countries that have recognized Mr. Guaidó must reinforce his political legitimacy as well as his authority over Venezuela’s economic assets, both in and out of the country. This will cut off Mr. Maduro’s access to the resources he uses to oppress the Venezuelan people, and will communicate very clearly to his supporters (particularly those in the military) that endorsing him is a dead end.

Second, the conflict must be guided back to its original, regional scale. Venezuela must not become yet another front in the newfangled mini Cold War that the United States and Russia have been waging in places like Ukraine and Syria. The United States, Russia and China must avoid using Venezuela as a proxy in a geopolitical power struggle. By not interfering they can prevent a stalemate that could give Mr. Maduro time and resources to cling to power.

Management of the Venezuelan crisis should be left in the hands of key regional stakeholders. The European Union, with the support of Canada, should create the space and conditions so that the Lima Group, which comprises 14 countries from the Americas, may decide a course of action. They should recruit the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to support the cause of democracy in Venezuela, and make the Cuban regime understand that it cannot continue to intervene in Venezuela and leech off its resources.

If democracy is to be restored in Venezuela, foreign actors need to step aside. President Donald Trump must stop the tough talk about a military invasion. It is ironic that Mr. Trump’s administration — isolationist by nature and utterly unconcerned about promoting democracy around the world — would seek to turn Venezuela into the focal point of its foreign policy. The United States exceeded its quota of military interventions in Latin America long ago — that scenario would best remain a dark memory of the 20th century. I appeal to congressional leaders, Democratic and Republican, to work together with their partners and neighbors in Latin America and Europe to restore democracy in Venezuela legally, legitimately and peacefully.

The interim president, Juan Guaidó, faces a colossal task. He must take control of the country, put the armed forces at the service of democratic institutions, disarm the Bolivarian militia, stabilize the country’s economy, and deal with the humanitarian catastrophe and the mass exile it has brought on.

Mr. Guaidó’s transition government must call for presidential elections, but first it must rebuild the National Electoral Council, free the country’s political prisoners and establish a valid electoral registration census. Like everything that is worth doing, institutional reconstruction requires a great deal of time, work and patience. It would be shortsighted politically to rush Guaidó just because the transition is uncomfortable for certain international partners.

Restoring democracy in Venezuela is possible, but the process is as delicate as the health of the Venezuelan people, who have lost on average 24 pounds. Mr. Maduro, in comparison, is well fed and his cronies continue to rob the country of its resources. Juan Guaidó as interim president, the National Assembly as bearer of Venezuela’s democratic legitimacy and the people of Venezuela need the support and encouragement of a community of democratic nations that is united and determined to help them regain the freedom that they and their country deserve.

Felipe González was prime minister of Spain from 1982 to 1996.

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