Venezuela’s phony olive branch

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a recent speech in Caracas. The Spanish-language sign on the stage reads: “Venezuela demands respect.”
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a recent speech in Caracas. The Spanish-language sign on the stage reads: “Venezuela demands respect.”

As expected, President Obama last week signed legislation imposing sanctions on government officials in Venezuela responsible for violence and human-rights violations in the wake of anti-government protests early this year. It will allow the president to freeze assets and deny or revoke visas of Venezuelan officials.

The president’s signature is the culmination of a tireless and persistent effort by critics of the Venezuelan government, most prominently Sen. Marco Rubio, to do something substantive to demonstrate American displeasure with President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly repressive and authoritarian government.

Even those with no love for Venezuela’s government had warned against sanctions, relying on the adage that when adversaries are doing a good job of self-destruction, by all means get out of the way and let them do so without interference.

Mr. Maduro and his cronies have been doing a pretty good job of running the country into the ground, all by themselves. Their currency is cheapening by the minute, down to 180 bolivars to $1, compared to the official rate of 6.3 to $1.

They are a generally incompetent lot, and corrupt to boot. Their mismanagement of the economy is rivaled only by their level of contempt for the civil liberties of the Venezuelan people.

Still, the decision to sign the sanctions bill, after months of resistance by the White House, represents a recognition that this country could no longer ignore the repression in Venezuela and limit its criticisms to stern admonitions aimed at Caracas.

It is an action commensurate with the democratic values that America upholds, including the right to self-expression and peaceful assembly. Venezuelan officials should be held accountable for their behavior.

In an opinion article in The New York Times last week, Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, wondered if the sanctions were “an attempt to distract public opinion from the exposure of rights violations by United States law enforcement officers,” pointing to demonstrations around the United States against the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.

That belongs in the Hall of Fame of lame arguments.

First, we doubt that anyone was “distracted” by Washington’s move to impose sanctions on Venezuela. We daresay few Americans even know about it. Even for those who follow events in Latin America, the move was overshadowed by the decision to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba.

Second, the wholesale repression of Venezuelan civil society, complete with fraudulent elections, press censorship and jailing of political opponents, does not begin to compare with the generally peaceful street protests over police shootings in this country that remain under investigation by the Department of Justice.

And third...well, that’s just a dumb argument.

Mr. Cabello said that the Venezuelan government recently “extended an olive branch” to Mr. Obama by naming an ambassador to Washington and inviting the U.S. administration to name an ambassador to Caracas.

He missed the point: Mr. Maduro should extend an olive branch to the people of Venezuela, not Washington, allow political opponents like Leopoldo López to leave prison and otherwise start behaving like the leader of a real democracy — which Venezuela once was. Until then, the sanctions should remain in place.