“Hugo Chávez ruled Venezuela with an iron hand, and his passing left a political void that I hope will be filled peacefully and through a constitutional and democratic process, grounded in the Venezuelan constitution and adhering to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
My aspirations, sadly, were in vain. Instead of hope and prosperity, the past six years under Nicolás Maduro — Chavez’s hand-picked successor — have brought Venezuelans nothing but suffering and despair. Maduro has plunged his country into economic ruin and humanitarian crisis, all while his government became a hybrid between a dictatorship and criminal empire. As crisis consumed Venezuela, average citizens — facing extreme food shortages and a collapsed medical system — watched their hopes for a prosperous future evaporate.
For years, we’ve watched in horror as Maduro methodically decimated every democratic institution that could threaten his white-knuckle grip on power. The judiciary was corrupted, freedom of the press denied, elections were rigged and security forces became known for crushing any type of criticism with lethal brutality and total impunity.
Thousands of innocent Venezuelans have perished under Maduro’s rule. Millions more have been forced to flee to neighboring countries. Yet we’ve learned that this criminal dictatorship could not kill the Venezuelan people’s enduring desire for freedom.
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Last week, I applauded the Trump administration for joining more than 20 countries in recognizing Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, as the provisional president of Venezuela. Recognizing an interim head of state, while drastic, already has granted Venezuelans one of the greatest opportunities to advance a constitutional transition that includes new elections and the restoration of democracy in their country.
Despite overwhelming international support for Guaidó, real challenges remain. Maduro has been exposed as an illegitimate dictator, but his autocratic friends — Vladimir Putin in Russia, Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba, and Xi Jinping in China — remain eager to prop up his crumbling regime.
Guaidó’s government must seize this moment to swiftly organize new democratic elections and welcome credible international observers. As I told him directly in our recent conversations, he has a responsibility to help pull Venezuelans back from the brink of being a failed state by ensuring they can exercise their most fundamental democratic right of having a representative government.
The United States must use all of its economic and political tools to continue supporting the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. However, it would be a huge mistake for the Trump administration to miscalculate in any way, leading to a military intervention involving U.S. troops. Such a move, while Trumpesque in its fire and fury, would be a death blow to the very credibility of Venezuela’s burgeoning democratic movement. The freedom of the Venezuelan people can only come from their own hands.
The international community must hold Maduro accountable for his government’s ongoing campaign of crimes against humanity and for the billions it has stolen from the Venezuelan people. We must double our efforts to combat Maduro’s illicit international financial networks and return this money to rebuild Venezuela.
In the coming weeks, I will reintroduce comprehensive legislation to support Venezuelans in their quest for a brighter future and implement a united diplomatic and economic strategy to begin restoring a sense of peace and stability in the country.
My bipartisan legislation will ensure that we hold Maduro accountable for his ongoing campaign of crimes against humanity — from torture to the suppression of free speech to using access to food and healthcare as a political tool. It will require the Trump administration to develop a strategy to investigate, freeze and reclaim corrupt assets that Maduro has stolen from his people; and it will authorize a multimillion-dollar humanitarian relief effort.
In addition, as Venezuelans continue to flee the catastrophic conditions in their country, I will be reintroducing legislation to immediately provide Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans in the United States. It is time for the administration to support this effort.
As Americans, we must always stand on the side of all people who struggle for democracy, human rights and freedom. For years, the U.S. Congress has stood with the people of Venezuela as they’ve endured unthinkable abuses at the hands of the Maduro regime. Now more than ever, we need a strategy that will support the Venezuelan people in their quest for democracy and the right to determine their own destiny.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, is the senior U.S. senator from New Jersey. He is ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.