Venezuelans are back in the streets demanding an end to the autocratic rule of Nicolas Maduro. We've seen this picture before, but then nothing happens, and the socialist dictator gets to consolidate his grip on power. But this time could be different. Even President Donald Trump formally recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate "interim president."
The disastrous economic policies of Maduro, and of his predecessor Hugo Chavez, have brought the country to the brink of "an absolute disaster in unprecedented proportions for the Western Hemisphere," according to a top United Nations official. Under "chavismo," Venezuela has become a mafia state with grotesque levels of corruption and government-sponsored crime — this is not simply a band of incompetent socialist ideologues. But things are beginning to fall in place for change.
First, the opposition — long maimed and deeply divided, with many of its leaders behind bars, in exile or discredited after years of fruitless posturing — has coalesced under the energetic leadership of Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old president of the National Assembly. The opposition had lost the trust of most Venezuelans, 80 percent of whom want Maduro gone, but Guaido has reignited the chemistry between both camps. He combines courage, determination and honesty. Guaido seems to be the missing link the opposition needed to get their act together.
Second, international pressure is at its highest point. Most Western governments refused to recognize Maduro's second term — which began on January 10 — after widely fraudulent elections last May. Instead, they recognized the opposition-controlled National Assembly as the only legitimate body of the Venezuelan government. The Assembly then invoked the Venezuelan Constitution to call Maduro a "usurper" and swearing in Guaido as interim president.
The United States, Canada and most Latin American countries swiftly welcomed him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Moreover, targeted Western sanctions are making life increasingly difficult for key figures within the regime and it is likely that they will contribute to cracking it on the margins. The United States, the European Union and other governments should expand the number of people exposed to these sanctions.
Venezuela's humanitarian crisis
And then there is the dreadful humanitarian crisis, which has forced over 3 million people to flee their country since 2014. The collapse of oil production — North Dakota now produces more crude than Venezuela — portends a deepening of the economic meltdown, with hyperinflation and acute shortages of food and medicines making life unbearable for most of the population.
A national survey in 2017 found that 87 percent of people live below the poverty line. Under these dire circumstances, it would be extraordinary if Maduro manages hold on to power for his six-year term. And that should not be lost on the ultimate arbiters of the crisis: the military.
The top brass of the armed forces is deeply involved in massive corruption, smuggling and drug-trafficking. That, plus the well-documented infiltration of Cuban secret services among troops, has until now made it very difficult for the military to turn on Maduro. However, the National Assembly recently passed legislation granting amnesty to those officers who facilitate a democratic transition. Western governments should support these efforts.
Until recently, things certainly seemed hopeless for the Venezuelan people. But a timely combination of increased international pressure and a revitalized opposition could prove to be the game-changer that Venezuelans have been looking for. Washington should keep the pressure on Maduro and his thugs and send an unequivocal message to the military leadership: either you facilitate the restoration of democracy in Venezuela or face the consequences once the regime collapses — as it ultimately will.