LONDON - Washington and European nations are echoing demands of Venezuelan protesters for socialist leader Nicolas Maduro to step down and give way for 35-year-old national assembly head Juan Guaido to act as Venezuela’s interim president while new elections are organized.
But some say Western moves against Maduro have been late in coming. As Venezuela plunged deeper into chaos, the West held back from adopting forceful measures to put pressure on Maduro to end repression.
Washington instead urged the country’s opposition leaders to negotiate with Maduro to try to halt Venezuela’s slide into chaos. But Maduro toyed with outside offers of mediation and last year shunned Western pleas to negotiate, staging what was widely seen as a sham presidential election in which leading opposition candidates and parties were banned.
The strategy pursued by the U.S. Obama administration was to coax Maduro to sit down with opponents, while denouncing the regime’s rights record and his imprisoning political activists.
But in a few months, the West has gone from being almost a passive observer of the agony of Venezuela to an active player, weighing in on the side of the popular uprising against the leftist who has led what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries into ruin and desperate penury.
Last month, the United States recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate ruler and imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports.
Pressure has also been mounted on countries to freeze Maduro regime assets in their jurisdictions, and the United States appears to have been successful in persuading the United Arab Emirates to stop a cash-for gold trade with Caracas. The goal is to starve Maduro of the funds needed to pay the military, which has remained loyal to the regime, and the collectivos, loyalist neighborhood gangs.
In a coordinated move Monday, European countries, including Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, followed the Trump administration’s lead and recognized Guaido as interim president, after Maduro failed to meet a European ultimatum to call new elections.
“The people of Venezuela have suffered enough,” said Britain’s foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, “It is time for a new start, with free and fair elections in accordance with international democratic standards. The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end. Those who continue to violate the human rights of ordinary Venezuelans under an illegitimate regime will be called to account."
Maduro's repressive socialist polices, inherited from mentor Hugo Chavez, have been disastrously unwinding for years, leaving Venezuelans struggling with hyperinflation, starvation and malnutrition.
Some analysts say there have been two reasons for Western delay. “There’s been a natural reluctance to intervene in the internal affairs of another country. And the other is the fact that the left internationally has been very reluctant to condemn Maduro, they see him as a kind of champion of socialism and they overlook things that in any other government they would pounce on,” says Madsen Pirie of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute, a London-based think tank.
The decline of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution has indeed been drawn out. Twenty-one years ago Chavez announced to an adoring crowd of loyalists in Caracas that “Venezuela’s resurrection is under way.”
The charismatic Chavez had pulled off a landslide election victory, promising to usher in an era of social justice by nationalizing Venezuela’s oil industry and overseeing a redistribution of wealth in a country notorious for income inequality and an overweening oligarchic elite.
Thanks to high oil prices ordinary Venezuelans enjoyed access to free health care, better housing and education. Poverty was halved; unemployment fell dramatically and Venezuela enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in the region.
But that made the despotic shortfalls of the regime easy to overlook, pro-Chavez British progressive Asa Cusack wrote in an article recently for Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
A plunge in oil prices, cronyism, ever-greater repression and mismanagement triggered a slow-motion economic meltdown, leaving Venezuelans struggling with hyperinflation, starvation and malnutrition, say analysts.
But Chavez and Maduro remained poster-boys for anti-austerity left-wing governments and political parties in Europe, enjoying support from Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, Pablo Podemos, leader of Spain’s anti-austerity movement, Jean-Luc Melenchon, a former French presidential candidate as well as the leaders of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper Tuesday, former British foreign secretary William Hague complained that European left-wing supporters of the Bolivarian revolution for too long turned “a blind eye to the escalating abuse of human rights and disregard of democracy that has kept the Maduro government in power.”
As for the United States, Madsen Pirie says a reason by the Obama administration to step lightly was fatigue from military intervention in the Middle East. “I think people learn from their experience and they were reluctant to repeat in Venezuela what hasn't produced good results elsewhere,” he said.