People line up to buy toiletries in a supermarket in Caracas on Monday. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

With Venezuela spinning into chaos and collapse, the Obama administration has pondered how to nudge the imploding nation toward political change — without making Uncle Sam a target. The administration appears to have found the right formula this week.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced Tuesday at a meeting of the Organization of American States that the United States will support an OAS plan for a “fair and timely” recall referendum that could replace the failing government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. A senior State Department official specified that “in our view, ‘fair and timely’ means this year.”

The date of the recall referendum is crucial, because if it’s postponed until after Jan. 10 next year, then Maduro’s vice president could succeed him. Delay would also allow Maduro’s supporters more time to organize militias to sustain the leftist movement organized by Venezuela’s volcanic dictator Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013.

Kerry’s announcement in the Dominican Republic could break the bitter logjam between Maduro’s leftist supporters and the opposition-controlled parliament. Prominent Venezuelans had warned in recent interviews that the nearly bankrupt country was veering toward civil war.

Venezuela is rarely a prominent topic of discussion in Washington. But the oil-rich, chronically mismanaged country illustrates a recurring dilemma in U.S. foreign policy: How can America encourage local partners to drive political change and regional security, rather than placing the burden on American shoulders and, in the process, encouraging resentment of U.S. meddling?

Opposition protesters in Caracas, Venezuela were met by police as they vented frustration about the economy and demanded a referendum to recall president Nicolas Maduro on May 18. (Reuters)

The hero of this story is Luis Almagro, the OAS secretary general. Last month he issued a devastating 132-page report on Maduro’s regime, which urged the OAS to consider revoking Venezuela’s membership in the Latin American organization and backed the opposition’s call for a recall vote.

Almagro documented the deteriorating situation: 700 percent inflation, a $130 billion foreign debt and a 76 percent poverty rate. Venezuela, afflicted by pervasive corruption, also has one of the highest murder rates in the world. In the view of U.S. analysts, it is becoming a failed state.

“As important as the referendum will be, it is still many months away, and the humanitarian crisis could bring the roof down on all Venezuelans unless shortages of food and medicine are addressed,” explained the senior State Department official. The catastrophe could worsen if Venezuela defaults on its massive debt this fall, as some analysts expect. The country has survived mainly thanks to emergency loans from China.

To organize a regional push for change in Venezuela, Almagro has organized a coalition within the OAS. Regional powerhouses such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico appear to be moving toward the OAS chief’s position, with quiet encouragement from the United States. Almagro’s leadership helped calm long-standing Latin American suspicion of U.S. intervention in the hemisphere.

“If it’s the U.S. versus Venezuela, that plays into Maduro’s hands,” explained a senior administration official. “It has to be led by Latin Americans. It can’t be led by us.”

The deteriorating security situation in Venezuela was outlined by retired Maj. Gen. Hebert García Plaza, a former member of Maduro’s cabinet who left in 2014 and was subsequently accused by the regime of corruption. García Plaza said in an interview that a large majority of Venezuela’s regular military supported the parliament’s recall move and would seek to maintain order during a transition.

U.S. experts agree that the Venezuelan military is likely to side with the parliamentary opposition. “The military has a feel for where this is going,” said one analyst. “They don’t want their country to collapse. They don’t want to be on the wrong side.”

The danger, García Plaza said, was the formation of local militias. He said that roughly 15,000 of these neighborhood groups are being organized, with about 100 members each, which would mean a nationwide force of 1.5 million that Maduro could potentially mobilize.

To prevent Venezuela from sliding toward civil strife, U.S. officials favor a process of dialogue, sponsored by Spain, Argentina and other nations. The aim would be to reassure Maduro’s supporters they’ll have a place in a future Venezuela if they cede power. Otherwise, warns a U.S. analyst, what’s ahead is an “ugly mix” of political violence and economic decay.

The challenge for the United States, from Syria to the South China Sea, is mobilizing regional partners so that America doesn’t go it alone in maintaining stability. After years of disastrous decline in Venezuela, a shared U.S. and Latin American strategy for recovery seems to be emerging.

Donald Trump often urges other nations to carry more of the burden of security. Here’s an example of how that can work.

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