Benjamin N. Gedan, a senior adviser to the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was director for South America in the White House under President Barack Obama. Fernando Cutz, a senior associate at the Cohen Group, held the same role under President Trump.
There should be a doomsday clock ticking away in Venezuela’s presidential palace. On Jan. 10, President Nicolás Maduro will be inaugurated for a second term following rigged elections last May. The opposition — its coalition in disarray, its leaders in prison or exile — largely boycotted the vote. The United States, Canada and Latin America’s largest countries, includingBrazil and Argentina, vowed not to recognize the results.
The end of Maduro’s term should signal the beginning of his total diplomatic isolation.
Instead, Latin American governments are expected to take little action, beyond showy pledges to skip the festivities in Caracas. Even as Venezuela’s collapse produces millions of migrants, its neighbors are showing little appetite to marshal a meaningful response to the country’s criminal regime.
There are several reasons for regional inaction. Though the inauguration provides an opportunity to amplify pressure on Maduro, it is only the latest in a series of provocations. After all, Maduro — who replaced Hugo Chávez after his death in 2013, and won a special election later that year — has long ruled autocratically. In October 2016, he quashed a recall referendum that would have ousted him from office. The following July, he established a constituent assembly to usurp the responsibilities of the country’s opposition-led congress.
Latin American governments have a strong history of nonintervention in the affairs of their neighbors. Resentment of European and U.S. meddling is core to the regional identity, and leaders are hesitant to stand in judgment of their peers. For example, despite a remarkable democratization wave in the 1980s, there is widespread acceptance of the Cuban dictatorship.
There is also a bandwidth problem, as Nicaragua’s crackdown on dissent taxes the region’s capacity to mobilize.
Furthermore, Mexico’s election last July of the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador threatens to defang the region’s response to the Venezuela crisis.
Under former president Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico abandoned its traditional hands-off foreign policy and provided leadership at the Organization of American States and in the Lima Group — an informal collection of countries committed to the aggressive defense of Venezuela’s crumbling democracy. On Friday, the group hardened its stance against Maduro’s reelection and threatened financial sanctions. But historically, these countries have settled for statements alone. Moreover, Mexico seems to be moving closer to Caracas: López Obrador invited Maduro to his inauguration and objected to the Lima Group’s harder line, greatly diminishing its influence.
But low expectations from Washington have also contributed to the most severe political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Latin America’s modern history. We both worked on Venezuela policy on the National Security Council in recent years — one of us for President Barack Obama, the other for President Trump. For the past three years, as Latin American governments shrugged off their comfortable neutrality, the White House celebrated the widening opposition to Maduro but has not asked more of Venezuela’s neighbors.
At the Organization of American States, Venezuela’s allies — socialist fellow travelers such as Bolivia, and Caribbean vassals that benefited from Venezuela’s subsidized oil shipments — thwarted collective action. Nevertheless, Latin America’s largest countries assembled ad hoc coalitions to produce condemnatory statements about Maduro’s repressive and immiserating dictatorship. In December 2016, members of the Mercosur customs union — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — suspended Venezuela’s participation.
But Latin America’s response has now stalled, despite steadily worsening conditions.
For too long, U.S. allies in the region have received too much praise for too little action.
It is time to demand more from Latin America. Specifically, Latin American governments should adopt unilateral sanctions to punish the kleptocrats whose thievery, incompetence and brutality have impoverished an oil-rich country that was once one of the wealthiest in Latin America.
The United States has been imposing sanctions on Venezuela for years, targeting drug traffickers and human rights violators in Maduro’s government. Among others, the U.S. Treasury has blacklisted Venezuela’s president, vice president and first lady. In November 2017, the European Union also approved sanctions against Caracas.
But in Latin America, only Panama has agreed to sanction Venezuela. The rest of the region insists its hands are tied by constitutional restrictions and inadequate legal authorities. Leaders have rebuffed offers by U.S. government lawyers to help write sanctions legislation. Instead, they hide behind their preference for multilateral action — unlikely at the paralyzed Organization of American States and impossible at the United Nations Security Council, where Venezuelan allies China and Russia would not abide a sanctions resolution.
Latin American countries should find ways to overcome obstacles to sanctions, whether by proposing new laws or identifying alternative tools, such as criminal prosecutions for money laundering or drug trafficking that occurred in their jurisdictions, followed by Interpol red notices that would effectively prevent criminal Venezuelan officials from setting foot outside their country ever again.
Unlike other regions, Latin America — scarred by a history of brutal military dictatorships — has declared democracy the only acceptable form of government. It is a requirement for membership in regional bodies, even trade partnerships.
To make good on that commitment, Latin American leaders should no longer treat Maduro as their counterpart. Instead, Maduro and his inner circle should be denied access to Latin American financial systems. Members of his regime, and their relatives, should be unable to travel throughout Latin America, whether on official passports or as tourists. His ambassadors should be declared personae non gratae and returned home.
These actions are overdue. Jan. 10 is the right time to make up for lost time.