Andres Oppenheimer

Latin American leaders ask, “Has Venezuela’s opposition lost its voice?”

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SANTIAGO, Chile — When I sat down with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera last weekend, he talked extensively about the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and expressed frustration over the paralysis of Venezuela’s democratic opposition.

He’ s not alone.

Piñera was talking only on behalf of Chile, but I have heard the same complaint in recent interviews with several other Latin American presidents. They say that while stronger international diplomatic pressures against Venezuela’s dictatorship are necessary, they will not be effective unless accompanied by street protests and an increasingly united and vocal democratic opposition.

Some wonder: Has the Venezuelan opposition given up?

Piñera praised U.S. and European individual visa and financial sanctions against top Venezuelan officials. He also celebrated last week’s unprecedented petition by Chile and six other countries — Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru, Canada and France — to ask the International Criminal Court to investigate Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro’s possible crimes against humanity.

And Piñera suggested that several Latin American democracies might take a new step to isolate Maduro by formally declaring him an illegitimate president.

“Those of us who are members of the (14-country) Group of Lima in general don’t recognize the legitimacy of Venezuela’s last presidential election because it wasn’t a clean, open, democratic election. Therefore . . . we will not recognize Maduro as president of Venezuela,” Piñera told me.

But he stressed that these and other international measures “would be very helpful if Venezuela’s democratic opposition were more united and had a clearer and stronger voice. Unfortunately, after trying many things, including taking millions of people to the streets, hundreds of whom died in street demonstrations, things have come to a halt now.”

Like virtually all Latin American presidents, Piñera said he opposes a foreign military intervention in Venezuela. Noting that Venezuela has a much larger army than Panama had when the United States invaded that country in 1989, Piñera said that a military intervention could have unforeseen negative consequences.

A new poll in Venezuela helps explain the perplexity of foreign democratic leaders about the decline of opposition protests and the latest political quarrels among Venezuela’s opposition leaders.

The poll, by the Andres Bello University and the Ratio UCAB polling firm, says that while the Maduro regime has an approval rating of only 32 percent, about 54 percent of Venezuelans believe the regime’s narrative that the country’s hyper-inflation and food shortages are because business tycoons and merchants are hoarding products to enrich themselves.

Amazingly, only 20 percent of Venezuelans recognize the real reason behind the country’s food shortages: disastrous economic policies that prevent the private sector from selling almost anything, because, among other things, production costs are higher than price limits set by the government.

Luis Pedro España, a UCAB professor who conducted the poll, told Venezuelan media that the reason so many citizens believe Maduro’s explanation of the crisis is that, “The opposition has somehow disappeared from the public scene.” Also, the absence of a united opposition leadership has allowed Maduro to impose his own narrative, he said.

Because of that, coupled with the government’s control of most of the media, millions of Venezuelans are not making a connection between the country’s humanitarian crisis and the government’s ineptitude or failed economic policies.

True enough, Venezuela’s opposition has been in a state of shock since Maduro declared himself the winner of the May 20 fraudulent elections, and there were few street protests in response. Last year, at least 150 demonstrators were killed in massive anti-government protests.

Now, opposition leaders are trying to team up, and create a new united opposition front. At a meeting in Boston last weekend, organized by Harvard professor Ricardo Hausmann, almost 50 exiled Venezuelan politicians and academics met to draft an economic and social plan for a post-Maduro government.

While that joint effort does not address the key question of how to bring down the Maduro regime, it could serve as road map to unify Venezuela’s leading opposition parties.

Hopefully, it will do that, because a foreign military intervention is highly unlikely in the near future, and no amount of international diplomatic pressure will bring down Venezuela’s dictatorship if it’s not accompanied by a strong and vocal internal opposition.

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