Key Latin American countries have in recent days stepped up their pressure on Venezuela's regime to restore democracy, but the region must take a much bolder step to stop the brutal repression of opposition protests that has already led to at least 45 deaths.
Before we get into what Latin American countries should do, let's applaud the fact that the 34-country Organization of American States (OAS) earlier this week passed a resolution to convene a meeting of the region's foreign ministers on May 31 to discuss Venezuela's political and humanitarian crisis.
This was a victory for pro-democracy forces, because the Venezuelan regime had tried to prevent that high-level meeting. The proposal was approved by 18 votes — including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and virtually all major countries in the region — with 13 abstentions, many of them from Caribbean islands that are dependent on Venezuela's oil subsidies.
But the bad news is that an 18-country majority won't suffice to impose regional diplomatic sanctions on Venezuela. Under OAS regulations, the May 31 meeting will need a two-thirds majority — at least 24 votes — which, according to well-placed diplomats, will be very difficult to achieve.
In the absence of a two-thirds majority vote to impose diplomatic sanctions and demand the restoration of the rule of law — as Venezuela is obliged to do under inter-American treaties — the biggest countries in the region would be smart to take the following steps:
First, issue a strong statement by as many countries as possible at the May 31 foreign ministers' meeting demanding early, free presidential elections in Venezuela monitored by credible international observers, a restoration of the constitutional powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly and the release of all political prisoners.
The foreign ministers should also appoint a delegation to travel to Caracas for a fact-finding mission, and report to the OAS annual general assembly in Cancun, Mexico, on June 21.
Second, in preparation for the OAS annual meeting in Cancun, the presidents of Latin America's biggest countries should personally make strong individual statements demanding free elections in Venezuela. Until now, with few notable exceptions such as the presidents of Peru and Argentina, most of such demands have been made by lower-level officials.
Third, at the OAS meeting in Cancun, Latin American countries should strive for a two-thirds majority vote explicitly demanding early, free elections in Venezuela monitored by OAS and European Union observers. The United States and Latin America countries should work to convince nations that are in effect supporting Maduro, such as Haiti and St. Vincent and Grenadines, that they must side with democracy.
An explicit regional demand for early presidential elections in Venezuela would be a major step forward. Previously, OAS member countries have only made vague demands on Venezuela to "comply with its electoral calendar."
Some are skeptical that any OAS resolution about Venezuela will make a difference, arguing that Maduro and his corrupt clique of narco-generals don't care what their neighbors say. Maduro's announcement that he will convene a Constituent Assembly to draft a Cuban-styled constitution speaks for itself, they say.
My opinion: I disagree. U.S. and Latin American pressure on the Maduro dictatorship will be essential not only to give moral support to Venezuela's opposition, but also to deepen the growing cracks within the Maduro regime and help bring about an electoral solution.
We have already seen in recent weeks key Venezuelan government figures distancing themselves from Maduro. One of them, Venezuela's attorney general Luisa Ortega, publicly said the government has broken the rule of law.
With polls showing that 80 percent of the Venezuelan people want Maduro to go, U.S. visa sanctions against Venezuelan human rights abusers who have fortunes in U.S. banks, and mounting pressure from major Latin American countries that until recently were allies of the Chavista regime, Maduro's fragile coalition could crumble.
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