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Strong international action required to address Venezuela’s dictatorship

February 03, 2019 - 00:00
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[Ed. Note: Ana Rosa Quintana leads The Heritage Foundation’s U.S. policy efforts toward Latin America.]


Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s alarming power grab has turned Venezuela into a dictatorship. U.S. leadership and regional cooperation is needed to reverse Venezuela’s imminent collapse. At a minimum, the U.S. should develop a comprehensive sanctions regime targeting Venezuelan government officials, mandate strong standards for any dialogue with the Maduro regime, and conduct a detailed assessment on how an oil embargo against Venezuela would impact the U.S. economy (as well as develop a contingency plan to mitigate the impact if such sanctions become necessary).


On Sunday, July 30, 2017, Venezuela’s increasingly authoritarian government became a dictatorship. All 545 handpicked candidates of President Nicolas Maduro’s ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) were elected to a national constituent assembly in a highly fraudulent and violent vote. That day alone, Venezuelan security forces killed 16 protesters, bringing the four-month death toll of protestors to over 120.

Things look grim for Venezuela. The constituent assembly has been granted the authority to rewrite the constitution and remove from power the National Assembly and Attorney General’s office – the only institutions controlled by the political opposition. Reforming other government agencies falls under their authority as well. The U.S. should interpret this move as a direct challenge to its interests. In comparison to the other parts of the world, the relative security, stability, and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere largely stems from the regional consensus on the protection of democracy and human rights.

Allowing Venezuela to continue down this path is not an option for the U.S. and regional democracies. In response to these abuses, the U.S. should hold the Maduro regime accountable for its human rights violations, build an international coalition of partners for unified action, and outline concrete steps Venezuela must meet in order to reduce escalating U.S. action.

A Series of Crises

In less than two decades, now-deceased President Hugo Chavez and his handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, have ruined Venezuela. Their socialist, authoritarian rule has destroyed the world’s most oil-rich nation and allowed government corruption to flourish. As a result, Venezuela is in the midst of a profound humanitarian crisis the government refuses to recognize. Severe shortages of food and medicine have left millions of Venezuelans without adequate nutrition or health care.

Widespread discontent with the PSUV gave the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), majority control of the National Assembly in late 2015. In March 2017, Maduro’s loyalists on the Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly of its legislative power in order to grant Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft, a 49.9 percent collateral lien on Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA.

This action sparked a constitutional crisis and led to massive demonstrations. International organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) labeled this a “self-coup” and the Trump Administration responded by enacting targeted sanctions against eight members of the court, including the chief justice.

Daily Protests

Since this constitutional crisis in late March, daily anti-government protests have been taking place throughout Venezuela. Nearly five months later, more than 120 people have been killed by the government’s security forces. Facing an uncertain future and a low 15 percent approval rating, Maduro announced his intention to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution and replace the opposition-controlled National Assembly with a constituent assembly of PSUV loyalists. The U.S. government and others throughout the region condemned the unlawful plans. In the days leading to the July 30 election, the U.S. levied targeted sanctions against 13 current and former government officials for orchestrating the illegal vote, its associated violence, repression, and corruption.

Colombia, Mexico, and Panama implemented similar sanctions.

Following the election of the 545 handpicked PSUV candidates, Venezuela became a dictatorship. The constituent assembly is set to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, expulse the opposition from the National Assembly, and consolidate the executive branch power. Aside from the illegal power grab, the July 30 elections were highly fraudulent. The OAS Secretary General claims that the Venezuelan government’s manipulation of the vote is the largest electoral fraud in Latin America’s history.

Less than one day after the election of the new constituent assembly, President Trump froze Maduro’s assets under U.S. jurisdiction and barred him from entry into the U.S. Eleven governments in Latin America, along with the European parliament, refuse to accept the legitimacy of the constituent assembly.