In Venezuela, protests are spreading, as are the oppressive actions of the regime.

The New York Times reports:

A man walks past a burning barricade in Caracas February 24, 2014. Anti-government demonstrators set up barricades and started fires in Venezuela's capital on Monday despite calls from within the opposition to rein in protests in which at least 12 people have died in the OPEC nation. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo (VENEZUELA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) A man walks past a burning barricade in Caracas. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

The biggest protests since the death of the longtime leader Hugo Chávez nearly a year ago are sweeping Venezuela, rapidly expanding from the student protests that began this month on a campus in this western city into a much broader array of people across the country. On Monday, residents in Caracas, the capital, and other Venezuelan cities piled furniture, tree limbs, chain-link fence, sewer grates and washing machines to block roads in a coordinated action against the government.

Behind the outpouring is more than the litany of problems that have long bedeviled Venezuela, a country with the world’s largest oil reserves but also one of the highest inflation rates. Adding to the perennial frustrations over violent crime and chronic shortages of basic goods like milk and toilet paper, the outrage is being fueled by President Nicolás Maduro’s aggressive response to public dissent, including deploying hundreds of soldiers here and sending fighter jets to make low, threatening passes over the city.

Even for this president, there has been surprisingly little support sounded for protestors at a time a toxic figure in South America could be toppled.  The administration on Tuesday did kick out three Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation for Maduro’s expelling three U.S. staffers, whom he falsely accused of provoking the riots.

Last week Jay Carney delivered the most mild message imaginable: “Well, we’re deeply concerned about the violence in Venezuela. We are alarmed by the Venezuelan government’s use of security forces and armed gangs affiliated with the government to disrupt peaceful protests, which is disproportionate and threatens further escalation of the violence.  . . . We call on the government to release them immediately and to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people.” I bet that got a laugh in Caracas. In Mexico, President Obama was likewise lackluster: “So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protestors that it’s detained and engage in real dialogue.  And all parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.”

Secretary of State John Kerry hasn’t been much better. Last week he stated, “I am watching with increasing concern the situation in Venezuela. Despite calls from that country’s democratic opposition and the international community, the Venezuelan government has confronted peaceful protestors with force and in some cases with armed vigilantes claiming to support the government. It has imprisoned students and a key opposition figure. It has limited the freedoms of  expression and assembly necessary for legitimate political debate, and just today tightened restrictions on the media, revoking the credentials of CNN en Español reporters. This is not how democracies behave.” Well, who said Maduro’s regime is a real democracy in any meaningful sense?

The danger of vigorous U.S. action here is obvious: Maduro will use U.S. statements of support as a way of discrediting the protesters (American lackeys, and all that). This doesn’t mean we should, as is the case now, sound incredibly nonchalant and do nothing. That said, for years we have been reluctant to speak up for democracy in Venezuela and to take action to check first Chavez and now Maduro. Venezuela has been involved in everything from laundering money for Iran to narco-trafficking, and yet we treat events there as purely internal political issue.

Indeed, whatever we do will be criticized by Maduro, but he shouldn’t in essence be able to pre-empt U.S. action. Jose Cárdenas explains that the goal of State Department officials and the White House “all along was to keep a low profile so as not to play the foil for the Maduro government and otherwise overshadow the democratic opposition’s grievances. Additionally, they may have thought that at a less active U.S. approach would allow regional heavyweights such as Brazil to play the moderating role.” He concludes, “The result has been failure: Maduro still calls the opposition lackeys of Washington, mocks U.S. diplomatic entreaties, and no other regional country has stepped up to help resolve the crisis.”

To his credit Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) spoke up on the Senate floor and displayed slides of protesters being attacked by government forces. He said:

You know Venezuela’s an oil-rich country with hardworking people? They have a shortage — we don’t have an embargo against Venezuela. They have a shortage of toilet paper and tooth paste. Why? Because they are incompetent. Because communism doesn’t work. They look more and more like Cuba economically and politically every single day.

What’s the first thing the Venezuelan government did when these broke out? They cut off access to Twitter and Facebook and the Internet. They ran CNN out of there. They closed down the only Colombian station. Years before, they had closed down all the independent media outlets that criticized the government. Where did they learn that from? From Cuba. And yet we have to listen to what a paradise Cuba is. Well, I wonder how come I never read about boatloads of American refugees going to Cuba? Why have close to one and a half million people left Cuba to come here? But the only people that leave here to move there, are fugitives from the law and people that steal money from Medicare that go there to hide? Why? How come no American baseball players defect to Cuba? Why don’t any American doctors defect to Cuba if it’s such a paradise?

Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has also spoken up to condemn the regime’s tactics. (“I call on the international community to join me in condemning the unjust imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and the ongoing political persecution of Maria Corina Machado, Carlos Vecchio and other members of the country’s political opposition.”)

In speaking to a few human rights gurus, they suggest a number of possible actions. We could freeze assets and/or ban Venezuelan officials from traveling to the United States (as we did in Ukraine). We could make clear that those who perpetrate violence against innocents will be subject to prosecution at the Hague for human rights violations. We could also use a stronger voice in Venezuela to work collaboratively with countries in the region and provide support for protesters.

We are not without leverage. Tuesday, Maduro named a new ambassador to the United States, suggesting he doesn’t want a complete break with the United States. There is also economic leverage. As one former diplomat explained, Maduro’s regime is dependent on about $66 million a day from oil revenue from the United States; perhaps we might suggest we are looking for alternatives. Likewise, a substantial grant to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, earmarked for Venezuela, would make an impression. In sum, there is much we could do — if we want to exert some influence.

As is the case about everywhere on the planet, President Obama has shown little interest in South and Central American democracies or in helping dissidents in despotic regimes. To the contrary, he relaxed sanctions on Cuba, one of  Maduro’s best allies. What would help (aside from a different president) is a continual and consistent message from our administration. Through public diplomacy (Voice of America can be heard there, but programming can be beefed up with Radio Marti personnel crafted specifically for Venezuela while the protests last) and financial support for democracy promotion we can at the very least show we stand with free peoples.