Andres Oppenheimer

How to avoid a “Syrian-style” refugee crisis in Venezuela

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, gestures during a meeting with representatives of international and national mining companies at the Central Bank of Venezuela headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, gestures during a meeting with representatives of international and national mining companies at the Central Bank of Venezuela headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. Bloomberg

Now that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro seems to be closing all avenues for a peaceful resolution of his country's crisis, the international community should put some serious pressure on him to allow a constitutional referendum this year. Otherwise, we may soon see a refugee crisis that will spill across the region.

With Caracas already the No. 1 murder capital in the world, Venezuela's 720 percent annual inflation rate the highest in the planet, and the population increasingly desperate because of widespread food and medicine shortages, some analysts such as former U.S. State Department Latin American chief Roger Noriega are already warning that escalating violence in Venezuela could lead to a "Syrian-style" refugee crisis.

There could be hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Venezuelans seeking asylum in neighboring countries, they say. Already, more than 1.5 million have left Venezuela since late president Hugo Chavez started destroying the country in 1999, according to a 2014 study by the Central University of Venezuela.

Until now, the Obama administration, the European Union and Latin America's democracies had been betting on a mediation effort between Maduro and the opposition, led by former Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. But that mediation effort has been a waste of time, as has been obvious for many months.

Now, the Maduro-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE) has virtually eliminated any possibility of a peaceful outcome. The CNE last week cited bogus technical reasons to effectively say it can't hold a recall referendum demanded by the opposition by Jan. 10. Under the law, if the recall vote is held after the first half of the current president's term — on Jan. 10 — and Maduro loses, there would be no early general election, and Maduro's vice-president would finish his term through 2019.

According to a new poll by Caracas-based Keller and Associates, only 15 percent of Venezuelans say they would vote for Maduro staying in power. The opposition is now planning a massive anti-government protest on Sept. 1.

What should the Obama administration, Europe and Latin American countries do?

First, call the regime-supported Rodriguez Zapatero mediation mission for what it is: a farce.

Second, the Obama administration should significantly increase the number of targeted personal sanctions — such as U.S. visa withdrawals and freezing of U.S. assets — against high-ranking Venezuelan officials engaged in human right abuses, corruption and drug trafficking. Obama last year slapped sanctions on seven Venezuelan generals and officials accused of human rights abuses, but none against any of the regime's top officials.

Targeted personal sanctions would send a clear message to Venezuelan military officers — many of whom are already troubled by Maduro's ineptitude — that they would pay a personal price for violently repressing peaceful opposition protests.

Third, Latin American democracies and the Obama administration should ask the 34-country Organization of American States to officially request that Venezuela hold the recall referendum this year, and to allow OAS electoral observers during the vote.

Fifteen OAS member countries — including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and the United States — issued a statement on Aug. 11 asking Venezuela to hold the constitutional referendum "without delays."

But while the statement was bolder than previous ones, the member countries should explicitly call on Maduro to allow the recall vote before Jan. 10, with OAS electoral observers. They should also demand the release of political prisoners, such as Leopoldo Lopez, and request that Maduro accept the laws passed by the opposition-controlled National Assembly, in line with regional treaties that commit signatory countries to respect the rule of law, pro-democracy activists say.

My opinion: There are new and urgent reasons why the Obama administration and Latin American democracies should step up their diplomatic pressure on Maduro to allow a recall vote before Jan. 10, with credible international observers, and accept the laws passed by Venezuela's congress.

For Obama, it's not in his interest to have a social explosion in Venezuela that would go down in history as having happened during his watch. And for Latin America, it's not in the interest of any country to see a "Syrian-style" Venezuelan refugee crisis that would affect the whole region. The time to put strong diplomatic pressure on Maduro is now, and the substance of that pressure is clear.

Across Venezuela, cities are erupting in protests and looting over food shortages. Nicholas Casey, The New York Times’s Andes bureau chief, and the photographer Meridith Kohut provide a view from the ground.

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

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