Andres Oppenheimer

Venezuela is running out of time

In this Monday, July 4, 2016 photo, people wait in line to buy food outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela. The extent of the country's economic collapse can be measured in the length of the lines snaking through every neighborhood.
In this Monday, July 4, 2016 photo, people wait in line to buy food outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela. The extent of the country's economic collapse can be measured in the length of the lines snaking through every neighborhood. AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to South America this week was described as aimed at attending the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Río de Janeiro, but it provides him with an excellent opportunity to discuss the escalating crisis in Venezuela with some of the region’s key leaders.

Judging from what I’m hearing from his aides, Kerry will do much more than watch the fireworks in Río. He will meet with several leaders there, and is also visiting Argentina and Paraguay before returning to Washington. A senior U.S. official told me, “Venezuela will certainly be on the agenda.”

Coincidentally, or not, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil were the countries that — in that order — announced last week that they objected to Venezuela taking over the rotating presidency of South America’s Mercosur economic bloc, citing Venezuela’s failure to comply with the group’s democratic principles.

Venezuela had been scheduled to take over the rotating six-month presidency of Mercosur — which includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela — on July 30. Venezuela’s demotion — even after it had unilaterally proclaimed itself as Mercosur’s new president — was one of that country’s most embarrassing diplomatic defeats in recent memory.

Meanwhile, Venezuela is rapidly descending into a civilian-military dictatorship facing a severe humanitarian crisis. Venezuela’s economy is expected to collapse by 10 percent this year, following a similar fall last year. Inflation is projected at about 500 percent this year and 1,700 percent next year, according to the most optimistic forecasts. Supermarket shelves are almost empty, and there are shortages of key medicines.

Beleaguered President Nicolás Maduro has put most of the government under military control in hope of restoring food supplies, and signed a Cuban-style decree allowing the government to forcefully recruit Venezuelans to work in farms in the countryside. Amnesty International, the human rights group, says the measure “effectively amounts to forced labor.”

As street violence rises to all-time records, and Venezuela descends into chaos, Maduro and his military aides — many of whom face U.S. drug trafficking charges, including newly appointed interior minister Néstor Reverol Torres — seem to be closing all avenues to a political and economic normalization.

Despite the opposition’s landslide victory in the Dec. 6 legislative elections that gave it absolute control of the National Assembly, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Justice Tribunal has unlawfully blocked virtually all National Assembly laws, and Maduro is threatening to close down congress altogether.

And despite the fact that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro to leave office through a recall referendum that is allowed under the Venezuelan Constitution, the government is putting up all kinds of legal obstacles to prevent that from happening.

The Venezuelan regime is now using delaying tactics to push the recall referendum until next year, when — under the constitution — it would not lead to a general election. Under the law, if the recall referendum is held later than halfway through Maduro’s mandate, or Jan. 10, 2017, it could only replace Maduro by his vice president, who would be allowed to serve for the remainder of the president’s term until 2019.

The government-controlled National Electoral Council is demanding that the opposition gather, within three days, 4 million signatures calling for a recall referendum, but is dragging its feet to provide the date of such a vote, and to install the 40,000 voting machines that would be required. Unless Maduro is pressed to stop delaying the process, it will be very hard to hold a recall referendum this year.

My opinion: When Kerry meets with the presidents of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay when the three countries’ leaders meet in Río for the Olympics, he should try to persuade them to suspend Venezuela from the Mercosur bloc altogether, and from the Unasur diplomatic group as well.

Venezuela’s South American neighbors should invoke regional treaties to demand that Maduro comply with his own country’s constitution by accepting Venezuela’s National Assembly’s laws, and by allowing a recall referendum with credible international observers before Jan. 10, 2017.

If Maduro is not pressed within the next two weeks to take the necessary steps to convene the recall vote before Jan. 10, 2017, it will be too late, and there will be no open avenues left for a peaceful resolution of Venezuela’s crisis. Kerry’s message should be that there is little time left to prevent a major humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español