VENEZUELANS DESPAIR at the lack of international interest in the political crisis that is rocking their country. Since anti-government protests began early last month, at least 34 people have been killed, most of them opposition supporters gunned down by security forces or government-backed gangs. Some 1,600 people have been arrested, and many say they were beaten or tortured. One of the opposition’s top leaders has been jailed for more than a month.
Yet when another senior opposition figure, National Assembly member María Corina Machado, attempted to address an Organization of American States meeting in Washington on March 21, the OAS permanent council first voted to close the meeting to the media , then to prohibit her report. The shameful stifling — which was entirely at odds with the organization’s Democratic Charter — was enabled by some 15 Caribbean countries that depend on heavily subsidized Venezuelan oil, but it was also supported by regional powerhouse Brazil.
A delegation from the UNASUR group — promoted by Venezuela as an alternative to the OAS — subsequently visited Caracas and won a commitment from President Nicolás Maduro to accept a “good-faith witness,” possibly from the Vatican, to mediate talks with the opposition. But there’s not much reason to believe that Mr. Maduro — who refers to opposition leaders as “Chucky,” in a bizarre reference to the horror movie — is ready to compromise, or that the UNASUR group will pressure him to do so.
The problem with this fecklessness is that Venezuela desperately needs outside help. With one of the world’s highest inflation rates and one of its highest murder rates, severe shortages of basic goods, chronic power outages and now daily street confrontations, the country is in danger of collapse. Its polarized political leaders, with no elections in sight, are attempting to destroy each other rather than to compete within the rule of law — much less to negotiate.
The chief protagonist of this meltdown is Mr. Maduro, the former bus driver who succeeded Hugo Chávez a year ago and has since proved himself as crude in his political tactics as he is ignorant of economic fundamentals. The president portrays moderate opponents as “fascists,” claims that he is the target of incessant plotting by the CIA and increasingly depends on force — delivered by riot police or organized groups of thugs — to answer popular protests.
The opposition, for its part, is splintering between those who favor a patient strategy of winning over Venezuelans who still support the Chavista movement and militants who hope that building street barricades will somehow trigger the regime’s collapse — or perhaps a military coup. The violent clashes may be driving away citizens who would support a movement that aimed for change by peaceful and democratic means.
The Obama administration, too, has been a non-factor in the Venezuelan crisis, other than as a foil — even though the United States, as a major buyer of Venezuelan oil, has plenty of potential leverage. So it was encouraging to hear the senior State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, say Thursday that sanctions against the Maduro government could be “a tool” if “there isn’t a possibility of dialogue, if there is no space for the opposition.” (Ms. Jacobson spoke in Spanish.) That might get the attention of the regime’s more rational minds.
Congress is considering legislation that would sanction Venezuelan officials guilty of human rights offenses; that, too, could be useful. It may be that nothing can stop Venezuela’s downward spiral. But it is shameful that its neighbors have not made more of an effort.