The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Latin America has never seen a crisis like Venezuela before

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks after voting in local elections in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 9, 2018.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks after voting in local elections in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 9, 2018. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

THE EPIC political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is due to pass a new juncture Thursday when President Nicolás Maduro is sworn in for a second six-year term. His first saw an implosion unprecedented in modern Latin American history: Though his country was not at war, its economy shrank by 50 percent. What was once the region’s richest society was swept by epidemics of malnutrition, preventable diseases and violent crime. Three million people fled the country. Yet Mr. Maduro, having orchestrated a fraudulent reelection, presses on with what the regime describes as a socialist revolution, with tutoring from Cuba and predatory loans from Russia and China.

If there is any light in this bleak picture, it is that Venezuela’s neighbors are edging toward more assertive action to stem a crisis that, with the massive flow of refugees, threatens to destabilize several other countries. Last week, 13 governments, including Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Canada, issued a statement declaring Mr. Maduro’s presidency illegitimate and threatening sanctions. Peru imposed travel and banking restrictions on Mr. Maduro and his cabinet, and several countries said they would recognize the opposition-controlled National Assembly as Venezuela’s only legitimate institution.

Unfortunately, that is unlikely to move the regime. Mr. Maduro has already survived challenges that usually topple governments, including months of mass street protests in 2017 and inflation that soared to 1 million percent last year. That’s partly because critical shortages of food, water, medicine and power have kept many Venezuelans preoccupied with day-to-day survival, while the availability of refuge in neighboring countries has provided an escape valve. But Mr. Maduro, like Hugo Chávez before him, has not hesitated to employ crude repression. A report issued Wednesday by Human Rights Watch said it had documented 380 cases of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of government opponents since 2014, including at least 31 cases of torture. That includes dozens of military personnel suspected of coup-plotting.

Like three administrations before it, the Trump White House has struggled over how to respond to the Chavistas. The Treasury Department has steadily expanded sanctions, which now apply to some 70 people and cut off Venezuela’s access to U.S. banks. But though President Trump has sometimes talked of military intervention, he has rightly refrained from that, as well as from lesser measures, such as a boycott of Venezuelan oil. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been urging Latin American governments to act, but not all are cooperating. Mexico, under its new leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, declined to join the collective condemnation of Mr. Maduro and is sending a diplomat to his inauguration.

As conditions continue to deteriorate — the International Monetary Fund is forecasting that inflation could rise in 2019 to 10 million percent — Mr. Maduro may finally be toppled by dissidents inside the regime or a new popular uprising. If not, the pressure Venezuela is putting on its neighbors will escalate. One recent study by scholars at the Brookings Institution concluded that 5 million more refugees may pour across the borders. The region has never seen a crisis like this: a steadily escalating catastrophe with no solution — either from inside or outside — in sight.

Read more:

Jackson Diehl: Can Latin America handle Venezuela’s collapse without the U.S.?

The Post’s View: Venezuela’s public health is in ruins. It must open the gates to aid.

Roger Noriega: The U.S. is watching from the sidelines as Venezuela destabilizes the region

Luis Almagro: The International Criminal Court must investigate Maduro’s crimes in Venezuela

The Post’s View: What if Venezuela’s regime just keeps going?