VENEZUELA’S POLITICAL and humanitarian crisis, which has long been desperate and deadly, this week tipped toward the surreal. On Tuesday, a helicopter swooped over the Supreme Court and interior ministry, dropping grenades and firing shots; President Nicolás Maduro called it a U.S.-backed coup attempt. But no one was injured in the incident, and when the pilot of the helicopter turned out to be an actor who has played a police commando in the movies — and who has yet to be detained by authorities — opposition leaders understandably wondered whether the incident was orchestrated by Mr. Maduro.
If so, it wouldn’t be suprising. The corrupt clique around the president, which inherited the leftist populist movement founded by Hugo Chávez, is resorting to increasingly far-fetched tactics to combat a mass protest movement that has the support of the vast majority of Venezuelans. It has dispensed tons of tear gas at the daily marches and demonstrations, and fired thousands of bullets, both rubber and real; at least 78 people have been killed since the unrest began in April. Five died on Wednesday.
The regime has detained more than 3,200 people, many of whom have been beaten and tortured, according to independent human rights groups. More than 300 are facing summary trials before military tribunals and sentences of decades in prison. Mr. Maduro meantime is pressing forward with a plan for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution prepared under Chávez. It likely would eliminate the opposition-controlled National Assembly and convert Venezuela into a regime modeled after Cuba’s.
When the government’s own attorney general protested the manifest illegality of the constitutional rewrite and the brutal repression of demonstrations, the regime banned her from traveling and moved to strip her powers. Mr. Maduro meanwhile delivered a blood-curdling speech in which he promised to “go to combat” to defend the regime. “What couldn’t be done with votes, we would do with weapons,” he said.
You’d think the specter of civil war in a major oil-producing country of more than 30 million people would finally rouse its democratic neighbors to action. But Latin America remains largely paralyzed over Venezuela’s chaos. Last week, a group of countries led by Mexico tried to pass a resolution at the Organization of American States calling for the establishment of a contact group of nations to broker a peaceful solution, including free elections and the release of prisoners. It failed, thanks to the opposition of a handful of Venezuelan clients, including tiny Carribean nations bribed by Caracas with discounted oil.
It didn’t help that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson withdrew from the OAS meeting, preferring to focus on the boycott of Qatar by other Arab states. While the Trump administration has sporadically acted on Venezuela, imposing sanctions on some senior regime figures and issuing statements, it appears to have no strategy for addressing the most consequential crisis in the hemisphere since the Central American wars of the 1980s.
The United States can’t rescue Venezuela, but there are things it can do to pressure the regime: more sanctions against individuals and entities involved in repression; dissemination of information about the involvement of regime leaders in drug trafficking and other corruption; démarches to those Caribbean states and to Cuba. Standing by while Mr. Maduro stokes “combat” should not be an option.
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