The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Who is Nicolás Maduro’s biggest ally? You, the American driver.

A Citgo refinery in Sulphur, La., in June 2018. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

As Venezuela heads deeper into crisis, a lot has been written about the key pillars of Nicolás Maduro’s support. We read about Russia, China, Cuba, Turkey, Iran, about the Venezuelan military, the secret police and the groups of regime-organized thugs in motorbikes who terrorize opposition demonstrators.

Here’s a little secret: They’re all bit players. The one strategic partner that Venezuela’s dictatorship can’t do without is you, the American gas consumer.

Even today, 20 years into Venezuela’s calamitous revolution, by far the biggest source of revenue the government has is you. Even if the United States does not rely heavily on Venezuelan oil, part of the money you spend ends up in the pockets of Venezuela’s military high command. It ends up bankrolling the paychecks of the thousands of secret police spies Maduro relies on to eavesdrop on Venezuelans who oppose him. Your money pays for the torture chamber where the secret police torture people suspected of opposing him.

Try to keep this in mind as you hear the inevitable conspiracy theories about an American agenda to make a power grab for Venezuela’s oil. No such grab is needed. Venezuela’s oil is already flowing straight into U.S. refineries in great big gobs and, from there, into your gas tank. Of course, your dollars make the same trip, in the opposite direction.

As Venezuela’s political crisis has deepened over the past few days, many pundits have gone into the familiar crouch, worrying about U.S. imperialism and fretting about the Trump administration’s instincts. Figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) worry about American overreach in pushing for regime change in a faraway land; others call for a hands-off approach.

But that’s not a luxury that Americans really have. American’s hands are inescapably on the Venezuelan crisis, because it’s American motorists who provide the vast bulk of the cash the regime relies on to survive.

Despite all the anti-imperialist rhetoric coming from the regime, the United States is the No. 1 buyer of Venezuelan oil, accounting for about half of Venezuelan exports. The oil that Venezuela sends to its second-biggest customer —China — goes to repay loans received during the oil boom years, before 2014. The original loan money was squandered or stolen ages ago, but Venezuela is still paying. Those barrels don’t generate fresh dollars Maduro can use to bankroll his regime today.

For that, he relies on you. Without the money you spend on Venezuelan oil, Maduro could never afford the patronage that’s kept the Venezuelan military commanders on his side. His cronies could never afford their lavish lifestyles. He could never keep the entire apparatus of Bolivarian socialism running. Maduro doesn’t need China, or Russia, or Iran. He needs you.

In the coming days, the U.S. government is going to have to make a decision about whether this state of affairs should be allowed to continue. Maduro was reelected last year in an artlessly rigged vote condemned by every major democratic country in Latin America and around the world. His old term expired earlier this month, leaving Venezuela without a duly elected president.

On Wednesday, Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly — the last body elected cleanly at the ballot box — declared that he would step up as caretaker president to organize new elections and return the country to democracy. Within hours, virtually every major democracy in the hemisphere recognized him: Not just the United States but also Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile and Ecuador. Mexico alone held out.

But, inevitably, the United States has a special role to play in all this — not because it’s an imperial power, but because U.S. gas buyers are central to the Maduro regime’s survival strategy. Having recognized Guaidó as the caretaker president of Venezuela, the question naturally follows: Shouldn’t he be the one who decides how the money you spend on Venezuelan gas is spent? Shouldn’t he get to control Citgo, the large Venezuelan-owned, U.S.-based oil refiner? Why should U.S. consumers continue to bankroll a regime their government doesn’t recognize?

This isn’t about President Trump. Or about U.S. imperialism. There’s no hands-off U.S. approach to a dictatorship that runs on the money you give it.

The U.S. government can and should ensure your money is diverted away from the people who have destroyed Venezuela’s democracy and toward those who, like Guaidó, have spent their entire adult lives working to defend it.

To oppose such a move out of misplaced hostility to Trump would be a historic mistake. Your gas money doesn’t have to pay for Maduro’s henchmen. It’s an outrage that has gone on too long. It should stop.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Is the end to Venezuela’s nightmare in sight?

Frida Ghitis: This is Venezuela’s struggle. Trump should act with caution.

Francisco Toro: Why the new protests in Venezuela are different

Juan Guaidó: Maduro is a usurper. It’s time to restore democracy in Venezuela.

The Post’s View: Latin America has never seen a crisis like Venezuela before