The U.S. must support the Venezuelan people, never closer to freedom

The crisis in Venezuela has entered the 11th hour.

After months of protests involving millions of people, Interim President Juan Guaidó has called on Venezuela’s military and civilians to support the freedom movement and stop propping up the socialist dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro. Maduro calls this a “coup,” but it’s actually a citizen uprising to take back power. The real coup happened when he stole the 2018 presidential election. Now the Venezuelan people are standing up to restore their freedom and regain control of their country.

Our organization has spoken with many protesters and officials on the ground in Venezuela this week. They’ve told us what’s really happening, and kept us informed about key developments.

In recent days, a small but influential group of military officers switched loyalty from Maduro to Guaidó. However, the military’s main divisions remain in Maduro’s camp, and the Ministry of Defense reiterated its support for the regime. This by itself is unsurprising — Maduro lavishes what little money he has left on the armed forces, knowing that his survival depends on it. He also controls key commanders with the help of Cuban spies and intimidation.

What is surprising is the level of dissent within the rest of the military’s ranks. Even one year ago, the idea of widespread defections seemed distant, if not impossible. Not anymore.

That’s because not even the armed forces can escape the country’s collapse. Gone are the days when Maduro could buy their complete loyalty with cash, favorable contracts and other government handouts. Maduro’s socialist policies have caused a humanitarian crisis that no one can escape. When soldiers look around their homeland today, all they see is suffering.

Venezuela is the definition of a failed state. Grocery stores have no food. Hospitals have no medicine. The currency is worthless, with inflation reaching more than 10 million percent. Electrical blackouts have plunged as much as 70 percent of the country into darkness. And about 12 percent of Venezuela’s population — more than 3 million people — have fled their homeland. Those who remain are too often starving, jobless and, increasingly, without any hope.

And yet, Nicolás Maduro clings to power. Even now, he relies on military, paramilitary and intelligence support from Cuba as well as Russia, which stations troops and missiles in Venezuela. And although his hold on the military may be slipping, Maduro still has means of dominating his country.

Police forces are using military equipment to attack unarmed protesters. We have heard from Venezuelans that Maduro is mobilizing the so-called “colectivos.” These are armed paramilitary gangs, loyal to the regime, that rule key neighborhoods with fear and violence. It appears that Maduro is gearing up for the most violent crackdown since he took power six years ago.

The United States cannot let this happen.

The Venezuelan people never have been closer to regaining their freedom. In this late stage, the United States must continue to support them and rally the rest of the free world to do the same.

First and foremost, we must pressure Maduro to stop violently suppressing the peaceful protests. Maduro must be convinced that he will face severe consequences if his regime slaughters innocent Venezuelans. To put it bluntly, Maduro and the Venezuelan military need to believe they face an external credible threat — including the possibility of American military intervention.

We have learned from Venezuelan sources that Maduro soon may try to arrest and imprison Guaidó to extinguish the fire of the freedom movement. At this point, the United States must work to protect Guaidó, Venezuela’s democratically-supported and constitutional leader. Anyone who lays a finger on the interim president must be sanctioned, criminally charged, or otherwise punished by the United States and other nations. Guaidó deserves to remain free.

The United States and like-minded nations also must confront the foreign countries that still support Maduro. Cuba and Russia should feel stronger international pressure to withdraw their military and intelligence services from Venezuela. President Trump’s threat of a “complete embargo” and “highest-level sanctions” on Cuba are a good start; Russia must be sanctioned for its actions, too. Crucially, Russia and Cuba must believe that the United States will take forceful action, including sanctions and military options, if they don’t leave Venezuela.

The time for decisive action is now. Without renewed support from the United States and other nations, Maduro most likely will continue to brutally crush the protests, extending his reign of terror. But if the international community stands with the Venezuelan people, Maduro may realize his best option is to step down and open the door to a democratic transition.

The Venezuelan people want Maduro gone, which is why they’re marching in the streets in record numbers. More than two decades of socialism have given them nothing but poverty and tyranny. Their long trauma can finally end. The world must allow the Venezuelan people to take back their freedom — and their future.

Marion Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is also founding president of the Common Sense Society, an international foundation that promotes civic engagement, entrepreneurship and leadership among young professionals in the United States and Europe. Follow him on Twitter @smithmarion.

Originally published in the The Hill.