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Venezuela’s Urgent Political Transition

In response to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's brazen attempts to hold onto power indefinitely, the international community has moved to isolate the country, while imposing increasingly broad and stringent sanctions. But more must be done to secure a peaceful transition to legitimate democratic rule.

CARACAS – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his administration have ruined their country. While they claim to be redeemers of the poor and trumpet their readiness to fight for their “selfless” Bolivarian cause, they refuse international assistance, forcing Venezuelans either to emigrate or suffer (and, in many cases, die) from severe shortages of food, medicines, and medical supplies.

The destruction of Venezuela must be stopped urgently if its viability as a state and a society is to be reestablished. That requires a new government of unquestionable legitimacy, chosen through a free and fair presidential election before the end of this year, as dictated by the constitution. To be sure, Maduro and his associates will not simply step down, as losing power would likely mean long prison terms in the United States for drug trafficking or in The Hague for crimes against humanity. Such charges have been substantiated by US prosecutors, the Organization of American States (OAS) and its independent experts, and by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In fact, the regime has recently become even more defiant and aggressive. It has cut short all “dialogues” to achieve peace in Venezuela, including in May, when – amid talks with the opposition – the authorities held a sham presidential election. More than 70% of the electorate boycotted the fraudulent vote, heeding calls by the Venezuelan opposition and many other democratic governments worldwide. As expected, the heavily rigged election delivered a victory to Maduro, who now claims a mandate to serve a second six-year term, ending in 2025.

Now, Maduro is working to entrench an increasingly authoritarian dictatorship, with the help of a new “constitution”, which is expected soon from the fraudulently elected National Constituent Assembly that sanctioned the “presidential election” in May. The referendum to approve the new constitution will naturally be organized again by the regime-controlled electoral authority.

Currently, the regime’s brazen last-ditch attempt to monopolize power indefinitely is being met by increasing international pressure. Having verified its massive corruption, human-rights violations, and crimes against humanity, the international community now recognizes that the principle of non-interference in countries’ internal affairs no longer applies. Earlier this month, the Peruvian representative at the UN Human Rights Council– with support from 53 member states – chastised the Venezuelan regime for still not changing its ways. After all, by rejecting international humanitarian assistance, the Maduro regime has all but acknowledged that it is intentionally maintaining the humanitarian crisis it has created as a tool of repression. The regime also continues to defy the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Thus, the international community has moved to isolate Venezuela, while imposing increasingly broad and stringent sanctions. But more must be done. For starters, a “recovery trust fund,” much like the one established in Syria, could help to keep more Venezuelans in their homes, while protecting them from the regime’s efforts to worsen their plight.

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A negotiated transition must include a poverty-eradication program, as well as a law on transitional justice and national reconciliation that brings to justice those who have committed grave violations of human rights and other crimes, including by banning them from any political activity. The negotiation of each case, including the return of stolen funds, should be carried out discreetly, potentially in cooperation with religious institutions.

All tasks required to ensure a peaceful transition by the end of this year, when Maduro’s legitimate first term of office ends, should be integrated in a roadmap with deadlines for implementation, perhaps presented by Pope Francis himself. Such a text, ideally made public before the end of August, should not be submitted for the approval of the regime or the opposition, as both are too fractured to agree on anything. Failure to comply would then justify less conventional mechanisms to halt the suffering and destruction of Venezuela.

Easier said than done. The gravity of Venezuela’s situation and its effects on the entire hemisphere have thus far proved insufficient to mobilize a majority of OAS governments to convince Maduro that the region’s democracies will not stand by idly while a totalitarian dictatorship and base for international organized crime emerges.

The regime has coopted the entire state and much of the opposition leadership, leaving only the people in the streets to resist the regime and to be gunned down yet again by its forces. There must be some assurance by Latin America’s democracies that this will not be allowed to happen – an assurance that could protect them should they ever be faced with a similar catastrophe.

Once a new democratic government is in place, UN and OAS missions should be regarded as crutches that would support the country on the path back toward democracy and development. International assistance would be needed, for example, to help disarm the population (especially the paramilitary colectivos), professionalize the military and police forces, reform the judiciary, manage the transitional justice program, recover stolen funds, and rebuild the health system.

Finally, looking to the future, adding a protocol to the Inter-American Democratic Charter has become necessary in order to expedite the compulsory enforcement of its provisions in emergency situations, particularly where the internationally recognized Responsibility to Protect comes into play. The regime’s resistance to formal in loco visits by UN and OAS bodies and special rapporteurs has not stopped them from producing such reports and substantiating their findings by other means. Practically, this must all be wrapped up before mid-December, when a new president should, and must, be elected in free and fair elections supervised by the UN and the OAS.

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