Venezuelans are angry, and it's not hard to see why. Consumers must contend with the world’s highest inflation rate and shortages of basic goods such as flour. So shaky is the economy that investors recently judged the likelihood of Venezuela repudiating its debt to be higher than even that of Ukraine. And it has the world’s fifth-highest homicide rate, with recent victims including the 2004 Miss Venezuela and a former world boxing champion.
All of this has brought tens of thousands of demonstrators to the streets. These protests, which have resulted in at least 17 deaths and more than 200 injuries, are unlikely to unseat President Nicolas Maduro. But there are things he can do -- as can others, including the protesters themselves -- to defuse a dangerous situation.
The opposition needs to honor the country’s half-century record of democratic transitions and forget any secret hopes of provoking an early Maduro resignation. The president, who narrowly won a six-year term last April, can face a recall referendum only after reaching the midway point of his tenure.
Parliamentary elections are coming up in 2015. The opposition must muster the same discipline and unity that helped it score important victories in December’s municipal elections (and enabled it to almost beat Maduro). Yes, the continued chicanery of the government will make this difficult: It has smothered news coverage, stacked the judiciary and harassed opposition rallies. Maduro is not shy about using the resources and largesse of the state to sway voters.
Outside friends can help. Some of Venezuela’s democratic neighbors -- such as Colombia, Chile and Peru -- have called on Venezuela to respect freedom and human rights and pursue dialogue. It would be nice if Brazil had done the same, but President Dilma Rousseff is trying not to alienate leftists for her own re-election this year, and Brazilian companies such as the construction giant Odebrecht do a nice business with the government next door.
That diffidence needs to change. Latin American countries have a shared interest in defending democratic values through their own conduct with Venezuela and through greater support for regional groups such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The U.S. has little leverage with Venezuela. Indeed, next to class struggle, bashing Uncle Sam is the main tenet of Chavismo, the namesake ideology of Maduro's predecessor and anti-American champion Hugo Chavez. So set aside your new idea of sanctions, Senator Marco Rubio -- you’d just be throwing Maduro & Co. into their favorite briar patch.
The U.S. has a few marginal options to hasten the end of Chavismo. Approving the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, and lifting the ban on the export of U.S. oil could help reduce American reliance on Venezuela’s heavy crude. The U.S. could also undermine the control and reach of the Castros by further easing limits on U.S. commerce and exchange with Cuba, the ideological wellspring of Chavismo and supplier of its enforcers.
The one person who can do the most to ease tensions in Venezuela, of course, is Chavismo's chief sponsor and benefactor: Nicolas Maduro. Thus far he has responded to the protests by blaming opposition “fascists” for the violence, arresting opposition leaders and stepping up censorship.
If Maduro is serious about wanting peace, he will release what are in effect political prisoners, beginning with Leopoldo Lopez, the opposition leader detained for inciting violence. He can also take up the suggestion by Henrique Capriles, his opponent in the last presidential election, to have the Roman Catholic Church serve as a mediator.
Notwithstanding the complaints of citizens and the skittishness of investors, Venezuela’s mineral wealth -- it has the world's largest oil reserves -- has repeatedly allowed the country to defy predictions of impending economic or political collapse. The current government in Caracas is not the first to pursue misguided policies that have squandered Venezuela’s natural and monetary resources. It’s up to Venezuela’s voters to try to steer the country in a better direction -- and to its leaders to give them the chance.
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