The simple and tragic reason why the world can’t do anything to save Venezuela

First do no harm.
First do no harm.
Image: Reuters/Marco Bello
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Much of the world is horrified by what’s going on in Venezuela. Dozens of dead protestors. Jailed opponents. Food shortages and decaying hospitals.

Yet the international community has not been able to stop Venezuela from sinking further into its worst crisis in decades. The election on July 30 to pick a constituent assembly with the power to dismantle the national assembly, the only source of meaningful opposition, is a case in point. Despite international condemnation ahead of the poll–including sanctions against Venezuelan officials by the US—it took place anyway, and a violent response to protests led to 10 deaths. Reports suggest the government inflated the turnout of the election.

In the aftermath of the vote, world leaders are again criticizing the Venezuelan government. Some 40 countries refuse to recognize the results. The US Department of State called the election “flawed” and promised to take “swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism in Venezuela.”

But the truth is, there’s little they can do to punish president Nicolás Maduro’s repressive regime that doesn’t also hurt Venezuelans.

The Maduro government has already shown it won’t bow down to international pressure. “It has the oil industry, it has the levers of power, and it has the armed forces,” says David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It can hold on for a very long time.”

When the Organization of American States tried to stage an intervention earlier this year, Venezuela responded by pulling out of the group, reducing the OAS’s leverage. (It was limited to begin with; some member countries have remained loyal to Venezuela, which was generous with them when oil prices were at record highs.)

Tougher measures haven’t worked either. Instead of undermining Maduro’s government, the sanctions the US has periodically imposed on Venezuelan officials—blocking their assets and forbidding Americans from dealing with them—have been gifts to a president who relies on anti-imperialist tirades to fuel his support. The sanctions also make the targeted officials more dependent on the Maduro regime, as Smilde points out, and less likely to undermine it. Just look at the response of a recently-blacklisted official, María Iris Varela. “Go to hell, shitty yankees,” she tweeted.

A more severe measure would be to sanction the oil industry that brings in most of Venezuela’s foreign revenue. The US is reportedly considering limited measures that don’t include blocking Venezuelan oil imports. But it would likely be the people, not Maduro’s government, that would bear the brunt of the economic hardship, and it could also reverberate on the US and other countries as Venezuelan refugees flood out.

Smilde suggests it might be time for world leaders to try a different tack: be less confrontational and more persuasive. “You have to convince them that it’s in their interest to allow a transition to take place,” he says.

For ideas on how to do that, he suggests looking at neighboring Colombia, which recently ended its 50-year civil war. That conflict is very different from the situation in Venezuela—except for the very similar impasse that prevented the warring parties there from ending their dispute. Aided by international facilitators, the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas eventually broke through to a peace deal with concessions for both sides, including the promise that fighters who tell the truth will be spared jail time.

Might that approach work in Venezuela? If so, hopefully it won’t take 50 years.