FOR THE better part of two decades, Venezuelans have attempted through mass demonstrations, strikes, electoral mobilizations and negotiations to free themselves from the disastrous regime founded by Hugo Chávez. Nothing has worked, and the government has steadily grown more authoritarian and corrupt while subjecting the country’s 32 million people to a humanitarian castatrophe. As tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Caracas and other cities this week in yet one more rebellion, the great question was whether finally one could succeed. Though we don’t know the answer, there are some encouraging signs.
The latest unrest was triggered by President Nicolás Maduro’s assumption of a new six-year term earlier this month on the basis of an election condemned in and outside Venezuela as fraudulent. Days earlier, the National Assembly, which the opposition controls, chose a young and dynamic new leader, Juan Guaidó, who has moved quickly to challenge Mr. Maduro. Because the president’s reelection was found to be illegitimate, the assembly deemed the post vacant and Mr. Guaidó declared himself interim president.
Those steps were grounded in the Venezuelan constitution, but what gave them real import was the move by the United States on Wednesday to recognize Mr. Guaidó as president. Importantly, the U.S. action was joined by Canada and numerous Latin American countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Peru; this made the claim by Russia and some U.S. leftists that the Trump administration was engaged in an imperialist “intervention” ridiculous on its face. Still, Mr. Maduro is doing his best to make it look that way: He theatrically broke relations with the United States and ordered that U.S. diplomats leave the country by Saturday. Following Mr. Guaidó’s lead, the State Department said it would maintain a diplomatic presence.
The National Assembly’s assertion of itself as an alternative government and the multilateral support it has attracted have created at least the potential for the latest Venezuelan crisis to take a different course. But some skillful U.S. diplomacy is now needed. The Trump administration must avoid allowing itself to become isolated in a confrontation with the Maduro regime — over evacuation of the embassy, for example — while its regional allies and Mr. Guaidó watch from the sidelines.
Unless the lives of Americans are endangered and there is no other recourse, military intervention would be folly. A U.S. boycott of Venezuelan oil could endanger ordinary Venezuelans already coping with critical shortages of food, power and medicine. As it is, a mass exodus of desperate refugees threatens to destabilize several of Venezuela’s neighbors. Calls by Mr. Maduro’s Latin American and European sympathizers for “dialogue” should be dismissed; the regime has demonstrated that it will use such talks only to buy time and divide the opposition.
The administration’s best approach would be to join with its allies in initiatives that would help Venezuelans while bolstering Mr. Guaidó. A multilateral operation to deliver humanitarian supplies to Venezuela or to its borders, in cooperation with the National Assembly, is one possibility.
In the end, if Venezuela’s nightmare is to end, the change must come from inside. Mr. Guaidó is appealing to the military to defy its commanders and support him. The United States and its allies must hope they listen.