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U.S., region can get tougher on the lawless Maduro regime

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As a narco-dictatorship drives Venezuela to the brink of collapse, key partners in the Americas are hoping for more decisive U.S. engagement responding to the growing humanitarian and security crisis. National Security Adviser John Bolton can propose a more purposeful strategy in a public address on U.S. Latin America policy at the Freedom Tower in Miami on Thursday.

Major regional governments appear ready to do more to confront Nicolas Maduro’s lawless regime and to provide relief to Venezuelans — including millions of refugees — who are suffering because of cruel repression and a ravaged economy. But, some regional leaders believe, other than targeted sanctions and strong statements, there is no comprehensive U.S. strategy.

The leaders of Venezuela’s cabal — Maduro, Tareck El Aissami and Diosdado Cabello — have willfully chosen a criminal path that will lead them to an American prison or an early grave. U.S. Treasury sanctions have begun to crimp their ill-gotten fortunes, choke off credit and stoke doubts about Maduro’s clumsy leadership. Maduro relies on Cuban managers and intelligence henchmen for his survival — a dependence that chavista nationalists resent. If there were a coup d’état against Maduro tomorrow, the most likely author would be a ruthless rival trying to grab the helm of a foundering ship.

Maduro and his cabal have no moral or legal authority to manage the country or dictate its future. Under the energized leadership of President Trump’s appointees — Kim Breier at the State Department and Mauricio Claver-Carone on National Security Council staff — U.S. diplomats should work with a coalition of willing governments to defeat the narcostate in Venezuela.

The United States and like-minded governments should reject any negotiations with or accommodations for the regime. Instead, they should recognize Venezuela’s Supreme Court in exile, which was empowered by the democratically elected National Assembly. That tribunal has convicted Maduro of corruption and declared the presidency vacant. It has the authority to validate a lawful succession plan. The international community should develop such a transition strategy with authentic Venezuelan democrats — consciously marginalizing pols who are eager to collaborate with the Maduro regime.

Washington can help rally governments to act by publishing U.S. indictments that expose the massive theft, narcotrafficking, money laundering and related crimes regime gangsters have committed. Offering substantial monetary rewards for information leading to their arrest and conviction would drive home the point. The U.S. Treasury and its global counterparts also should expand targeted sanctions against regime ministers, henchmen and bankers.

Meanwhile, public and private messages should advise Venezuela’s security forces that they face sanctions and prosecution for supporting a criminal dictatorship, but that they will be credited for defending democracy, constitutional order and innocent life.

The Trump team also should expose, sanction, indict and prosecute Cuban officials in Venezuela for their involvement in corruption, narcotrafficking and aiding and abetting Colombian terrorists. To address the latter challenge, a formal security arrangement with Colombia makes sense. In addition, senior U.S. officials must warn Russia and China that continued support for the illegal regime threatens to impact their international standing.

The United States already is supporting multinational efforts to provide food and other relief to Venezuelan refugees. These governments should demand that de facto officials in Caracas establish a humanitarian corridor to address hunger and disease in the country. They also should form a relief and reconstruction fund to collect humanitarian donations and recover stolen assets to be used by a transition government.

The White House should work with Congress to bolster pending bipartisan legislation that can provide a framework for humanitarian relief and a lawful transition. Trump should designate a national coordinator for Venezuela policy with the authority to create interagency planning and regional action.

One urgent task is instructing the U.S. military to prepare for likely contingencies, in coordination with our allies, to protect human life and restore order. Retired career diplomat William Brownfield, who served as the State Department’s anti-narcotics chief and as ambassador to Caracas, is a logical candidate for that role.

Bolton’s address this week is a good sign that Trump’s new Western Hemisphere team has begun to develop options for a more purposeful policy in the Americas. A strategy for confronting the threats from Venezuela is long overdue.

Roger F. Noriega was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2001-05.

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