National Guard members in Caracas, Venezuela, form a shield wall during a protest asking for a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro. (Alejandro Cegarra/For the Washington Post)

NUMEROUS GOVERNMENTS, including the Obama administration, last week called for political negotiations in Venezuela to head off an incipient and potentially catastrophic breakdown of political and economic order. Former Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero traveled to Caracas with other statesmen to urge President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leaders to start talking. But Mr. Maduro was otherwise occupied. At the end of the week, he ordered tanks, aircraft and soldiers to patrol the country, claiming — not for the first time — that he was trying to head off a U.S. invasion.

Thus does the delusional heir of Hugo Chávez drag a country of 30 million people, with the world’s largest oil reserves, over a cliff. By most measures, Venezuela is already a failed state: Amid crippling shortages of food, medicine, power and water, every societal ailment is soaring. Inflation is headed toward 700 percent, and the murder rate is probably the world’s second-highest, after El Salvador’s. According to the New York Times, deaths of infants under a month old in public hospitals are 100 times more common than three years ago, while a coalition of nongovernmental organizations says at least 200,000 people with chronic illnesses lack the medications for them.

An April poll, reported by the Miami Herald, showed that 86 percent of Venezuelans said they bought “less” or “much less” food than they used to, while only 54 percent said they ate three times a day. No wonder there have been numerous reports of mobs sacking food warehouses, as well as dozens of instances of vigilante lynchings of suspected thieves. In one particularly horrific case reported by the Associated Press, a man was burned alive outside a Caracas supermarket for allegedly stealing the equivalent of $5.

Thanks to Mr. Maduro and the corrupt and incompetent coterie that surrounds him, this chaos is likely to grow steadily worse. The regime has refused to adopt measures that might stanch the economic hemorrhaging, such as adjusting an exchange rate system that values the dollar at a fraction of its market value. It has meanwhile pursued a scorched-earth strategy toward opposition political parties that won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly in December.

This month, Mr. Maduro issued a patently unconstitutional decree granting himself the power to ignore the congress and run the economy by fiat. The regime-controlled constitutional assembly has rejected every measure adopted by legislators, including an amnesty for political prisoners. Most seriously, the electoral authority is effectively refusing to respond to the opposition’s collection of 1.8 million signatures on a petition for a recall election — a recourse explicitly authorized by the constitution.

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)

Calling for “political dialogue” is one way to respond to this unfolding crisis; we have done it ourselves. Yet Mr. Maduro and other top regime officials, many of them implicated in drug trafficking or other major crimes, have repeatedly failed to respond seriously. It’s time for more pressure to be put on them, such as through sanctions by the Organization of American States under its democracy charter.

The United States and Venezuela’s neighbors should demand that Mr. Maduro seek humanitarian aid to address shortages of food and medicine — something it has senselessly refused to do — and allow the recall referendum to take place this year. The alternative is frightful to contemplate.