Last week at a conference in Miami, the director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, Juan Cruz, took aim at the regime of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.
Mr. Cruz cited part of the Venezuelan Constitution, drafted under Mr. Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez, that says the people “shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates the values, principles and democratic guarantees or encroaches upon human rights.” He was directing his comments at the Venezuelan military, imploring its members to honor their commitment to the Constitution.
As when Rex Tillerson made similar statements in February as secretary of state, Mr. Cruz’s critics said that it was unwise for Washington to encourage a coup d’état.
But Mr. Cruz is merely facing facts. Mr. Maduro holds his power through the systematic violation of human rights and constitutional order, which has brought on an economic and social collapse and a refugee crisis that is affecting the whole continent. A regime steeped in corruption and narcotrafficking, whose violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 and 2017 left 200 dead and thousands injured, will never cede power voluntarily.
Rather than fear a coup, the international community should encourage all Venezuelans — including soldiers — to restore democracy.
The status quo is unacceptable. Starting in 1999, Mr. Chávez and Mr. Maduro co-opted and destroyed the independent legislature and courts; looted oil revenue and the national treasury; caused the collapse of the petroleum sector; wrecked the private economy; choked off the supply of food and medicines; and induced the exodus of 10 percent of the nation’s population.
President Trump has denounced Mr. Maduro and urged his counterparts in the region to take more concrete measures to press for change. But the United States cannot lead from behind when it comes to confronting the Venezuelan cabal that is managed by Cuba, bankrolled by China, armed by Russia, and exploited by Iran, Hezbollah and Colombian narco-terrorists. If the United States regards Mr. Maduro’s government as an illegitimate, criminal regime that threatens regional stability it should act accordingly.
While the Treasury Department has applied targeted sanctions against Mr. Maduro, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, and dozens of other senior officials implicated in human rights abuses and corruption, sanctions are no substitute for proactive engagement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should empower a new team of American diplomats to make the case for change in Venezuela.
The United States should break off diplomatic relations with Caracas and recognize members of the democratically elected National Assembly as the only legitimate representatives of the Venezuelan people.
Washington should reveal the results of prolonged criminal investigations into Mr. El Aissami, who is suspected of narcotics trafficking and having ties to terrorism, and into Diosdado Cabello, a top regime official suspected of running a cocaine cartel with Venezuelan military officers. Issuing or unsealing indictments in such cases will help to expose the dangerous narcostate in Caracas.
To hasten a transition, neighboring democracies should provide moral and material support to the democratic opposition in Venezuela. The United States, the O.A.S., and regional leaders from the Group of Lima should uphold a decision last week by Venezuela’s Supreme Court in exile, a body of jurists appointed by the National Assembly, that suspended Mr. Maduro from the presidency for corruption.
In keeping with that judgment, the Assembly should demand that members of the military comply with their constitutional duty to restore democratic order. And officers should be assured that if they move to oust Mr. Maduro their families and futures will be safeguarded, and the armed forces will be restored as an apolitical, professional institution.
And to ensure that power will be passed promptly to legitimate civilian authorities, members of the Assembly should establish a process for designating an interim successor to Mr. Maduro. They also should form an impartial electoral council to plan and conduct free and fair presidential elections under international supervision.
Finally, Venezuela’s democratic leaders should plan for receiving and distributing humanitarian assistance and reactivating social services. They must develop strategies for jump-starting and sustaining the recovery of the private economy. Transitional leaders should start a global effort to locate and claim billions of dollars looted from the Venezuelan people by corrupt officials.
If the military were to depose Mr. Maduro tomorrow, the Venezuelan people would likely regard it as a rescue mission more than a coup. Even within the military, regime insiders have told me, no more than 20 percent of the soldiers, whose own families are suffering from hunger and repression, would defend Mr. Maduro.
President Trump’s team has an extraordinary opportunity in Venezuela to take the lead to advance democratic values, defend American security, and confront narcotrafficking through a strategy that could unite America’s political parties and most of our American neighbors. It is a tough challenge, but well worth the effort.
Roger F. Noriega, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was United States ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2001 to 2005.
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