HUNDREDS OF thousands of Venezuelans thronged the streets of Caracas and other cities Saturday in the 50th consecutive day of protests against the regime of Nicolás Maduro, which has plunged Venezuela into chaos and threatens to convert it into a Cuban-style dictatorship. Though polls show that some 70 percent of the population support the protesters’ demand for free elections, Mr. Maduro and the corrupt clique around him are hanging on by the brute force of tear gas, water cannons, mass arrests and shootings by snipers. Forty-nine people had died as of Monday.
The opposition says it will continue the protests until the regime gives in, and it appears to have the popular support to do so. But Venezuelans are also desperately hoping for help from outside actors, including the United States. To its credit, the Trump administration is responding — breaking with a long-standing and self-defeating U.S. policy of avoiding confrontation with the movement founded by Hugo Chávez.
Last week, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against eight members of the Venezuelan supreme court, including its chief, while President Trump correctly described Venezuela’s dystopic food shortages and violence as “a disgrace to humanity.” The court was an apt target: Its members are not legal experts but political hacks and worse — the court president, a former state intelligence officer, is widely reported to have served time for murder. The Maduro regime has used the court to strip powers from the National Assembly, which has had a two-thirds opposition majority since the last election was held in 2015. The court’s last and most blatant move against the assembly triggered the current wave of street protests.
Though the United States has punished senior Venezuelan officials in the past for involvement in drug trafficking, the administration’s new step rightly singled out those involved in political repression. It sent a tough message to the Chavista elite, which depends on dollar-denominated bank accounts and shopping trips to Miami. Predictably, the move prompted hand-wringing from defenders of the previous policy of passivity, who argue that the United States must not take the lead in confronting Latin America’s rogue regimes, lest it be accused of imperialism. Yet Caracas and its regional allies have been invoking that imperialist accusation for years in any case — and polls show that Venezuelans don’t buy it.
There are limits to what the United States can do to rescue Venezuela. Military action is out of the question; collaboration with like-minded countries in the Organization of American States remains essential. But there are other steps Mr. Trump could order, including several outlined in pending bipartisan congressional legislation. The Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI should publicly report what they know about the criminal activities of senior government leaders, which include drug trafficking and profiteering on desperately needed food imports. Washington should seek to open channels for humanitarian aid, including for the many thousands of Venezuelans who have fled to Colombia and Brazil.
Eventually Venezuela may need help brokering a deal for elections and the orderly transfer of power. For now, however, the Maduro regime, tutored by Cubans from Fidel Castro’s hard-line camp, appears intent on installing a dictatorship by force. The United States should make clear that anyone who collaborates in that effort will be a target for sanctions.
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