Venezuela used to commemorate National Youth Day on Feb. 12 in recognition of the hundreds of students who reversed the course of the Battle of La Victoria against Spanish forces in 1812. But the holiday has new meaning since February 2014 when, inspired by those historical events, thousands of students took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations against the regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
Demanding democratic reforms, as well as measures to cope with a worsening economic climate, students were met with iron-fisted repression by the regime’s security apparatus. Peaceful streets were swarmed with National Guard officers who, often alongside regime-backed colectivos, shot protesters with live ammunition in a state-driven offensive to silence opponents.
Over 40 people lost their lives, and thousands of men and women were arrested on trumped-up charges. Among the arrested were political leaders such as Leopoldo López as well as student leaders such as Gabriel Valles and Lorent Saleh who, to this day, still languish in Venezuela’s inhumane prisons.
These protests created fissures in the armor of the Maduro regime and the opposition took advantage. During the legislative elections of 2015, the Democratic Unity opposition party successfully beat back a litany of deceitful tricks by pro-Maduro’s forces.
The opposition was the winner of 112 seats in the National Assembly, a supermajority capable of overriding vetoes, amending the Constitution, impeaching ministers and using the crucial nuclear option: calling for a constitutional convention.
Despite great strides toward democracy since the election, including the election of Latin America’s first transgender legislator, the Assembly that was sworn in last month was immediately undermined by the Chavista-packed Supreme Court. By suspending three opposition deputies, the regime has demonstrated its willingness to engage in a high-stakes constitutional clash.
Venezuela faces a long-simmering liquidity crisis from the collapse of international oil prices, an inflation rate estimated by the International Monetary Fund as 720 percent for 2016, and asphyxiating currency controls that threaten Venezuela’s endangered private sector.
Now we are seeing an attempt by Venezuela’s highest court to highjack the Assembly’s decision-making power by unconstitutionally approving a wrongheaded emergency economic decree that the Assembly had rejected.
By sidestepping the electoral will of the Venezuelan people and ignoring fundamental macroeconomic policy, Maduro is plunging the economy into an ocean of red ink and condemning the people of Venezuela to more dire shortages.
For years, the people of Venezuela have been asking the United States for assistance. The United States took action when it passed the Venezuela Defense of Civil Society Act of 2014, legislation that I authored, sanctioning human rights abusers in Venezuela, causing military and judicial leaders to understand that there are consequences for their abuses.
It is, however, not enough. More needs to be done to stop the slide of Venezuela into further despotism or outright anarchy.
Further names need to be added by the Obama administration to the sanctions list for human-rights abusers, including those involved in Leopoldo López’s prosecution. Last year, I led a letter to the administration signed by over 20 members of Congress on both sides of the aisle requesting the sanctioning of the prosecutor, the judge and a host of other officials implicated in López’s farcical show trial.
Further measures need to be implemented in order to bolster the newly elected legislators so that they find constructive and constitutional solutions to solve 17 years of human-rights abuses and nonsensical policies that have destroyed Venezuela’s robust economy and threaten to destroy its society.
Venezuela is an important regional player that faces a crossroads that no other country in Latin America currently faces. The future of our relations with an increasingly likely post-regime Venezuela should be led by a strong commitment to the institutions that foster democracy and the defense of human rights.
If the United States is to shed its tainted image of benign neglect in our hemisphere, it should begin by helping the people of Venezuela in its time of need and helping it get back on its feet once the current tribulations end.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican from Miami who represents Florida's 27th congressional district.