As Venezuela passed the one-year anniversary of the death of strongman Hugo Chavez today, his successor Nicolás Maduro continued his crackdown against protestors demanding an end to corruption, rampant crime, and economic mismanagement. Since nationwide demonstrations began a month ago, clashes between Venezuelan security forces and protestors have resulted so far in at least 18 deaths and over 250 injuries.
Chavez's socialist experiment has left Venezuela's economy and society in shambles. A Gallup poll recently reported that the dire economic situation "pushed Venezuelan pessimism about the nation's economy in 2013 to an all-time high-62% of Venezuelan adults said the economy is getting worse, while a record-low 12% said it was getting better." Even official Venezuelan government figures show that one in four basic household goods, such as milk or toilet paper, is in short supply. What's more, growth in violent crime has accompanied the oil-rich country's economic slide. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a non-governmental group that tracks trends in crime, estimated that the country's homicide rate had quadrupled since 1998.
As many thousands of Venezuelans across the country have taken to the streets to demonstrate against their deteriorating economic and social conditions, Maduro has used increasingly heavy-handed tactics to silence critics, control the flow of information, and violently suppress political dissent. Regime security forces have banned street protests, fired tear gas and pellets into crowds, and raided offices of opposition members, while also temporarily blocking users from sending or receiving Twitter images, taking a Colombian television station off the air, and threatening CNN and other international media stations covering the protests. News reports indicate the Maduro government has also utilized pro-regime gangs known as colectivos to crack down violently on protestors. As opposition deputy leader María Corina Machado-a member of Venezuela's National Assembly whom pro-regime lawmakers physically attacked on the legislature's floor last year-recently warned: "We live under ruthless repression not only by State security bodies, but also by colectivos, and armed paramilitary groups protected by the Government."
The Maduro government's resort to violence and intimidation reflects, in no small part, the regime's growing fragility. Although Chavez used massive state oil revenues to buy public support, years of mismanagement at the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela have brought the Maduro government's foreign exchange reserves to a ten-year low. Moreover, Maduro's failed currency reform has resulted in rampant, 56% inflation. For Maduro, the Wilson Center's Eric Olson recently noted, "[p]ast strategies for navigating economic hardship with oil largesse are no longer viable given that oil production is falling, some unexploited oil has already been monetized, and the dual currency program is proving economically costly and increasingly untenable."
The Maduro government's violent response to protests should not come as a complete surprise. Since assuming office in 2013, Maduro has repeatedly taken steps to undermine Venezuela's fragile democratic institutions, expand his governing authority, and marginalize members of the country's opposition. More recently, he has given the country's armed forces an increasingly prominent role in domestic affairs in order to corral the support of Chavez loyalists. As the Associated Press reports: "Without Chavez's charisma and army background, Maduro has dramatically expanded the military's role in government, appointing more than 300 uniformed or retired officials to political positions, including a quarter of Cabinet posts. He's also raised soldiers' salaries faster than inflation and created a military-run TV network." In an alarming development, Chavez's successor has allowed Cuba's military and intelligence services to play an active role on the ground in Venezuela. The worry now is that Maduro will use even more oppressive tactics to maintain his hold on power
U.S. lawmakers are now calling on the Obama administration to respond more assertively to the Maduro government's escalating use of violence. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved on March 4th a bipartisan non-binding resolution (H.Res. 488) authored by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and co-sponsored by 34 other lawmakers. The resolution urges the State Department to work with partners in the region in order to ensure "basic fundamental freedoms in Venezuela are in accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter", to persuade the Organization of American States (OAS) to convene a permanent council meeting to address crisis in Venezuela, and to strengthen the ability of the OAS to respond to "the erosion of democratic norms and institutions in member states."
In the Senate, lawmakers have urged the Obama administration to hold individuals in the Venezuelan government accountable for orchestrating Maduro's violent campaign of terror. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) recently introduced a bipartisan non-binding resolution (S.Res. 365) calling on President Obama to use existing tools to impose targeted sanctions, visa bans, and asset freezes on "individuals planning, facilitating, or perpetrating gross human rights violations against peaceful demonstrators, journalists, and other members of civil society in Venezuela." Such action by the Executive Branch would not be without precedent. On February 19th, the State Department imposed a visa ban on 20 Ukrainian officials "considered responsible for, complicit in, or responsible for ordering or otherwise directing human rights abuses related to political repression in Ukraine."
In the long-term, U.S. lawmakers also have the option of taking more concrete legislative actions to penalize government officials in Venezuela and other countries who are involved in gross human rights abuses. For example, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ) earlier this year introduced the Global Human Rights Accountability Act (S. 1933), legislation that would expand upon the enacted Magnitsky Act that specifically targets Russian government officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights" in Russia, and deny human rights abusers in other governments entry into the United States and the use of U.S. financial institutions.
Prior to his most recent violent crackdown, Maduro expelled U.S. diplomats on three occasions, and falsely accused Washington of poisoning Chavez before his death, orchestrating violence and encouraging acts of sabotage against the government, and conspiring with the country's political opposition. Washington should not be afraid to hold Caracas accountable for not meeting its responsibilities and commitments under Venezuela's constitution and the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The Venezuelan people are fighting to determine their nation's future. The United States and its democratic partners in the region should not stand by silently as the Maduro government tramples on the rights of Venezuelans, arbitrarily jails dissidents and protestors, and uses regular forces and irregular armed gangs to terrorize the population. As Senator Rubio recently urged, "With the Venezuelan people struggling and sacrificing for freedom, liberty and human rights, they deserve to have their voices be heard, and they deserve the world's leading defender of human rights to be on their side." Imposing a visa ban and targeted financial sanctions on Venezuelan leaders responsible for orchestrating attacks against demonstrators would send a powerful signal.