MISERABLE AS the people of Venezuela may be under the increasingly repressive and irrational rule of the Nicolás Maduro regime, they had fresh reason for hope last week — until President Trump’s blundering words on Friday.
The Western Hemisphere’s democracies were rallying against Mr. Maduro’s latest power grab — a phony election to install a new, rubber-stamp legislature, accompanied by a crackdown on domestic opponents. In Lima, Peru, a 17-member bloc of countries, including Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, had condemned Mr. Maduro’s government and imposed diplomatic isolation upon it. This effectively formed an ad hoc alternative to the Organization of American States, which had previously failed to respond to the situation appropriately because of Venezuela’s co-optation of client states and leftist allies. Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights had decried a “breakdown of the rule of law” and pinned responsibility on “the highest levels of the government.”
Then, with a stray remark, Mr. Trump set back much of this important diplomacy. Apparently oblivious to long-standing Latin American concerns about U.S. military intervention, he observed that his administration has “many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.” Perhaps his comment to reporters was intended as the usual “nothing is off the table” boilerplate; if so, it badly misfired. Mr. Trump’s bloviating immediately provided a shred of credibility to the Maduro regime’s conspiracy theories, which portray his domestic opponents as preparing the ground for Yankee intervention. Consequently, the new Peruvian-forged coalition had to waste precious time and political capital repudiating the American president, albeit not by name. “All foreign or domestic threats to resort to force undermine the goal of reinstating democratic governance in Venezuela, as well as the principles enshrined in the UN charter,” Peru’s foreign minister said.
Indeed, they do. To be sure, the damage Mr. Trump did is mostly intangible — but intangibles matter. Mr. Maduro’s regime must not be given any further opportunities to change the subject from its own misrule. And that misrule is profound. In addition to spiraling inflation and food shortages, the recent wave of official violence against dissidents and protesters has left 125 people dead, including at least 73 killed by government forces or allied thugs, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 people remain detained on political charges, and opposition mayors are facing arrest on spurious accusations of failing to prevent demonstrations. Low-ranking military personnel have begun to rebel in Venezuela; they don’t share in the opportunities for corrupt enrichment that the regime has bestowed upon the upper echelons of the armed forces. Venezuelans are fleeing their collapsing society by the hundreds of thousands, another reason its neighbors are trying so urgently to address the crisis.
The fissure between Venezuela’s rulers and their people is widening by the day, spreading even to sectors of society that had previously supported the government. Mr. Trump should not give the regime any new excuses to rally its dwindling band of loyalists — or to enforce obedience on everyone else.
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