When I revealed in 2011 that Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez’s cancer was terminal, my purpose was to alert the country to prepare for momentous change. So, I do that again today: The regime of Nicolás Maduro is doomed.
Managing his early departure and a democratic transition could spare Venezuelans further suffering and political turmoil. The Obama aministration could record its most momentous achievement in the Americas merely by counseling Maduro to weigh his options.
Maduro’s future is shackled to a collapsing economy, wrought by two decades of socialism, mismanagement, and corruption that has squandered $1.5 trillion in oil revenue. Anxious Venezuelans pass their days in long lines to buy food, medicine, and other necessities. Crime and insecurity stir rage in a society polarized by decades of class warfare, which is used by Maduro — like Chávez before him — to consolidate his base among Venezuela’s poor majority.
Ironically, those poor — today, about two-thirds of Venezuela’s 30 million people — are the hardest hit. Their average monthly household income of $50 is about one-fifth the cost of the basic staples, so, if the state does not meet their needs, they go without. The precipitous drop in oil prices in the last two years has taken its toll on government revenues and social programs. But the real damage was done by chavista policies that destroyed oil productivity and strangled the domestic economy.
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Rising hunger and insecurity have caused the chavista base to lose faith in Maduro. In National Assembly elections the democratic opposition slate received more votes last December than Maduro did in 2013. In an effort to salvage support, earlier this month Maduro empowered his minister of Defense, army commander-in-chief Vladimir Padrino López, to supervise food distribution. In the weeks since, there has been no mention of any economic reforms that would increase domestic food production or generate revenue to fund imports.
With no hope for the future and no faith in the country’s leadership, many fear that the humanitarian crisis will provoke a social explosion. The united opposition has rallied behind a constitutional path to remove Maduro from power through a popular referendum, followed by a snap election to choose a new president who will restore Venezuela’s economy and democracy. One recent poll found that, among likely voters, a staggering 88 percent would vote to oust Maduro.
Retired major general Cliver Alcalá is one of several prominent chavistas who has endorsed this strategy to overcome what he called, “anarchy.” According to sources within chavismo, many question Maduro’s capability and dependence on Cuban handlers who are more concerned with their allotment of free oil than Venezuelan blood. Among these chavista chieftains, few believe that saving Maduro is worth doing more damage to the country and their movement.
The chavista loyalists who run the electoral council know that, if they manage to delay the referendum until Jan. 10, a popular vote would legally remove Maduro but leave the Socialist Party vice president to complete the term. On Tuesday, the council postponed an announcement on whether the opposition had collected enough signatures to initiate the process, despite an internal audit showing they had exceeded that target.
Chavista politicians are accustomed to imposing their will on the opposition. But those days may be over. Last December, defense chief Padrino López thwarted attempts by government hardliners to overturn the opposition’s legislative landslide. The general must realize that denying a popular vote now, particularly as the humanitarian crisis deepens, risks provoking a deadly confrontation between his troops and desperate Venezuelans.
The next two weeks are critical. The Organization of American States (OAS) and key governments in the region should insist on monitoring the timely referendum process and observing any ensuing elections. U.S. officials should use targeted sanctions against regime hardliners to send a signal that Washington favors a peaceful and timely constitutional outcome.
Venezuela’s military should be encouraged to respect the constitution and keep the peace among its people. The opposition should accept no substitute for a referendum this year, followed by a presidential election as soon as possible. The Cuban regime can begin to atone for its destructive meddling by offering refuge to Maduro and his cadre.
Politically speaking, Nicolás Maduro is a dead man walking. The sooner he accepts his fate, the sooner Venezuelans can begin to rebuild their economy and their democracy.
The author was assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the administration of President George W. Bush (2001-2005). He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and his firm, Vision Americas LLC, represents U.S. and foreign clients.