Post: Venezuela in agony

Washington Post Editorial Board

Numerous governments, including Barack Obama’s 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 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.

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 US$5.

Thanks to 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. 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.

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.

Calling for “political dialogue” is one way to respond to this unfolding crisis; we have done it ourselves. Yet 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 U.S. and Venezuela’s neighbors should demand that 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.

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