Diplomacy Is Our Only Way Forward on Venezuela
AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
Diplomacy Is Our Only Way Forward on Venezuela
AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

This piece is part of a small RealClearWorld series on the crisis in Venezuela. The views expressed are the author's own.

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s four-country August tour of Latin America was dominated by one topic: Venezuela. After President Donald Trump's suggestion of military action set the region abuzz, Pence was relatively successful in containing the damage. Still, the question of how to deal with Venezuela's slide toward dictatorship remains more pressing than ever.

For reasons that U.S. analysts, the United Nations, and Latin American heads of state alike have made exceedingly clear, military engagement is not an option. The sour taste of Washington's 20th Century interventions is leaving Latin America's mouth, and much of the region favors the U.S.-backed, multi-country strategy to put pressure on the Venezuelan government. Reviving the specter of war can quickly undo this united front and throw Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his conspiracy narrative an invaluable lifeline.

So the question of what not to do is settled; now we need to consider viable strategies. As Pence voiced repeatedly throughout his tour, the only sustainable solution to Venezuela's crisis will come peacefully.

Options abound, from sanctioning individuals, as the United States has already begun to do, to sanctioning the country's oil sector -- a drastic option likely to bring down the regime, but with significant humanitarian implications.

An Atlantic Council report released this month examines the options at Trump's disposal and how to best use them. The new financial sanctions unveiled by the White House on Aug. 25 were in line with our analysis of what should be expected next. While the different courses of action vary in their potential costs and impact, they do have one thing in common: they will all need be accompanied by diplomacy, not artillery.

Regional Pressure

Latin American juggernauts such as Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Mexico have become more vocal than ever in their condemnation of the Maduro regime. This trend should continue so long as Washington stays in sync with Latin American leaders and policymakers.   

The united front against the Venezuelan regime is strong, but continued unscripted comments could do tremendous damage to American credibility and could sow division between the United States and its allies in the region.

Earlier this month 12 regional foreign ministers met in Lima, Peru, to issue a declaration that not only decried government abuses in Venezuela but was also backed by additional financial pressures. Days earlier, the South American trade bloc, Mercosur, suspended Venezuela for not complying with the bloc’s democracy clause.

Washington should be prepared to roll out sanctions of increasing severity in concert with its Latin American allies. Clear benchmarks should be set to restore the democratic order, with the promise of harsher future sanctions should Caracas fail to comply. Multilateral sanctions are much more effective than unilateral ones and undercut the Chavistas' claims that they are victims of U.S. imperialism.

To ensure the greatest possible support for new sanctions among the international community, Washington will need to maintain a cogent narrative.

Actions and Reactions

The United States and other major hemispheric players will have to quickly decide how to jointly react to yet another major breach of democracy. Gubernatorial elections scheduled for October are anticipated to be just a rubber stamp for the ruling party, after the illegitimately convened Constituent Assembly created a truth commission in August that will effectively bar non-government supporters from running for office. Venezuela is an oil-rich country that is eroding the last vestiges of democracy at a lightning speed.

In terms of taking action, middle ground exists between the current individual sanctions and the controversial ban on oil imports. Washington could, for example, limit Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA's access to U.S. financial markets, eroding the firm's ability to make payments on its nearly $44 billion in debt. Harsher still, though less damaging than an import ban, would be a ban on U.S. oil exports to Venezuela. Much of the country's extra-heavy oil relies on U.S. light crude as a diluting agent before it is fit for export.

A humanitarian aid package must be put in place to minimize the effects of sanctions on the Venezuelan people. Colombia and Brazil, in particular, can be key sources of additional support given the influx of refugees they will continue to see if the humanitarian crisis deepens. Their cooperation could be secured through simple diplomacy and at little cost. Colombia has already joined the U.S. Treasury Department's individual sanctions following direct talks between U.S. and Colombian officials in Bogota.

Direct talks like these should be the backbone of our approach to the region in the face of Venezuela’s collapse. The hemisphere’s principal leaders are showing the political will to take action, and U.S. policy will be most effective when it assumes the role of partner, and not protagonist. Hopefully, the vice president’s trip has reset the United States on that course.