Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former member of Congress from Massachusetts, is chairman and president of Citizens Energy Corp.
President Nicolás Maduro has abused the legacy of President Hugo Chávez, stealing democracy from the people, suppressing their human rights and denying 31 million Venezuelans their right to a decent and prosperous life. It’s time for him to go.
My family has a long history of friendship with the people of Venezuela. They welcomed President John F. Kennedy and my father, Robert F. Kennedy, following the launch of the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, which put money not into guns and rockets but into housing and education and jobs. And I’ve seen that warmth and friendship when I’ve walked through the neighborhood in Caracas named for my father.
During my first visits to Venezuela nearly 40 years ago, I witnessed how the oil-rich government failed to provide for the Venezuelan poor. Later, I saw how, under Chávez, it provided better access to housing, health care, nutrition and education, along with significant reductions in poverty and a marked increase in voter participation. His style of leadership was unconventional and far from perfect, but he represented a welcome change from the rule of the elite who used Venezuela’s oil wealth to enrich only themselves.
Chávez’s efforts to help countries in the region with discounted oil — along with his commitment to assist U.S. families struggling to stay warm in the winter — were also commendable and contrasted sharply with how other oil-producing nations, not to mention oil companies, line their pockets at the expense of the poor. As chairman and president of Citizens Energy, I was proud of our work with Venezuela and its oil company Citgo to provide heating assistance for over a decade to millions of poor Americans, including Native American tribes from Alaska to Maine, residents of more than 200 homeless shelters, and struggling families in more than 20 states.
Like all political leaders, Chávez had his flaws, and I expressed concerns directly with the then-president over his war on words with then-President George W. Bush and encouraged greater cooperation with the United States. But Chávez never shied away from putting his record before the people in a string of elections, including a recall referendum. The ideals of his Bolivarian Revolution — to enfranchise the poor and use Venezuela’s incredible natural resources to improve their lives — were laudable. But sadly, under his successor, the revolution has run off the rails, descending into dictatorship.
Faced with declining oil prices, a contracting economy, street protests and a revived opposition controlling the nation’s National Assembly, Maduro has tossed out Chávez’s commitment to democratic elections in favor of rewriting the rules to suppress any vestige of power-sharing. He has jailed political opponents including Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, packed the supreme court, and denied the flow of much-needed humanitarian aid. He has given the military control over crucial sectors of the economy, detained dissidents without trial and postponed regional elections. By stripping powers from the National Assembly and blocking a recall effort, he has further undermined Venezuela’s spirit of vigorous democracy.
Last month, in a blatant attempt to stage an end run around the democratically elected parliament, he engineered a referendum for a new Constituent Assembly that will rewrite the constitution and assume broad powers, including the possible dissolution of the National Assembly. This poses an existential threat to what remains of the country’s pluralistic rule. This past weekend, he ousted the country’s top prosecutor, who had opposed the vote, and replaced her with a more compliant loyalist.
I have personally urged Maduro to free political opponents and work with the United States to combat drug and sex trafficking and restrict the movement of terrorists. That advice, delivered before and after the end of our work with Venezuela two years ago, went unheeded.
The suffering of the people remains horrendous. Millions are going hungry, medicines are in short supply, and infant mortality is rising along with the murder rate. It is simply heartbreaking to see a country blessed with natural wealth descend into chaos.
If Maduro continues his present course, additional and tougher targeted global sanctions should be imposed on him and those close to him who benefit from the corrupt system. To hasten his departure, the international community should offer a massive humanitarian aid program, debt relief and new capital to reinvest in the oil industry and jump-start the economy, all conditional on his resignation from office.
Also essential is the immediate release of political prisoners, full freedom for López and Ledezma (who were released last week to house arrest), and the restoration of democratic rights of the opposition and the media. The interim government must respect the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly and ensure new elections are free, fair and internationally monitored.
Most importantly, there must be elections to choose another president next year. If not, one of Latin America’s greatest nations will further descend into the quagmire of militarized governance, unrest, and betrayal of democracy and the rule of law.
Our two countries have stood together since our own revolution close to 250 years ago, when Francisco de Miranda, a hero of Venezuelan independence, fought on the side of our patriots in America’s struggle for freedom. Today, we must stand on the side of the patriots in Venezuela who represent the aspirations of every Venezuelan, rich or poor, for democracy and prosperity.