LeMieux: Crumbling Venezuela needs help

Protesters in Caracas shut down the capital’s main highway this week with burning barricades.
Protesters in Caracas shut down the capital’s main highway this week with burning barricades.
Published April 27, 2017

There is a crisis in the world, in our hemisphere, largely going unnoticed.

The nation of Venezuela is crumbling. Its people are starving and cannot obtain health care due to the scarcity of medicine. Under Cuban-style socialist leadership, Venezuela has descended from its perch as a promising Latin American nation in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the most desperately poor nation in the region. Former President Hugo Chavez dismantled the nation's highly profitable oil corporation, instituted price controls, nationalized farms and industry, and denied access to foreign currency at market-based rates. Chavez's protege and successor, Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver, has followed the same path to devastating results. The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation in Venezuela will reach a staggering 700 percent this year.

In response, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets to protest the government and the economic and humanitarian crisis it has caused. The Maduro regime has responded with violence and suppression. A protester was killed this week when he was hit by a tear gas canister, and nearly 30 Venezuelans have been killed since protests began last month. News outlets covering the demonstrations have been shut down and thousands have been jailed, including leading opposition leaders, for speaking out against the government. Government workers are forced to stage counterprotests in favor of the Maduro dictatorship and against their fellow citizens.

This week the Organization of American States, a regional group of Western Hemisphere nations, voted to hold a meeting of foreign ministers to address the deteriorating situation. That prompted Venezuela's foreign minister to announce Wednesday that Venezuela, a founding member of the group, would withdraw from the OAS, citing intrusive and illicit actions by foreign governments to interfere with Venezuela's sovereignty.

The OAS took the right first step, but it needs to do more.

For too long, Latin American leaders have been content to look the other way when atrocities occurred in the country next door. This "live and let live" attitude allowed similar disastrous conditions to persist in Cuba for more than 50 years. It is time for the region to grow up, and for its leaders to take action to keep the situation in Venezuela from deteriorating any further. A failure to act will lead to more violence, and it may result in mass migrations that destabilize bordering nations, not unlike what has happened with Syria.

The OAS claims that promoting democracy and defending human rights are key pillars of its mission. If that is true, its member nations should quickly act to bring humanitarian relief to the region and demand free and fair elections to replace dictatorship with democracy and the rule of law.

Venezuela is descending into chaos. It's time for Latin American leaders to lead.

George LeMieux served as a Republican U.S. senator, governor's chief of staff and deputy attorney general.