LONDON – Nicolás Maduro’s term as president of Venezuela ended on January 10. Following the Venezuelan constitution, Juan Guaidó, head of the democratically elected National Assembly, declared himself interim president. The United States, Canada, and much of South America immediately recognized him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Several European Union countries have already done the same.
Not to Mexico, whose president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, claimed he would adhere to the principle of non-intervention. Uruguay, too, refuses to recognize Guaidó, with its foreign ministry chiming in that Venezuela’s problems must be solved peacefully by Venezuelans. Both countries, coincidentally, have announced that they will host an international conference intended to turn them into mediators in the Venezuelan standoff.
Theirs are the two arguments most often repeated by backers of the Venezuelan dictatorship. They sound reasonable at first, yet, after a moment’s reflection, both arguments turn out to be cynical, nonsensical, or both.
Start with the second claim. Venezuelans should, of course, resolve their own crisis. But there is one small difficulty: Maduro will not allow them to do so.
In the days since Guaidó was sworn in as president, at least 40 people have been killed and 800 arrested by the security forces. Since the 2015 general election, when the opposition won a majority in the National Assembly, Maduro has stripped the body of almost all power, while packing the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council with his cronies. Most opposition leaders are either in jail or in exile, and as many as four million Venezuelans (one in seven) have been forced to leave the country. Human Rights Watch and other respected NGOs have repeatedly highlighted the systematic violation of human rights in Venezuela.
In these circumstances, to repeat that Venezuelans must solve their own problems and then do nothing is to guarantee that nothing will happen – except, of course, that the rights of Venezuelans will continue to be violated. Paralysis has become a pattern. In recent years, timid attempts at mediation by the Vatican, Spain, and others went nowhere because that is where Maduro, unwilling to negotiate away his own dictatorial power, wanted them to go.
So much for the bad news. The good news is that much of the world has been jolted into action by Guaidó’s bold move. That progress should not be undone now by spurious appeals to non-intervention
.Dictators invariably rediscover this so-called principle when it suits them. That was as true of Augusto Pinochet in Chile as it was for Fidel Castro in Cuba. But in this case, the mantra of non-intervention clashes with the reality that foreign powers already are intervening in Venezuela. Cuban intelligence officers help run Maduro’s repressive apparatus, while China and Russia have lent tens of billions of dollars with accounting so opaque that no one is quite sure where the money went.
The case against the empty rhetoric of non-intervention is not only practical. Standing aside and calling for dialog as a thug puts a knife to a grandmother’s throat and snatches her handbag can correctly be described as non-intervention, but it is neither a courageous nor a moral act.
We have an ethical duty to defend human life and dignity against atrocities, no matter where they are committed. That is why most countries of the world (though not the United States, Russia, or China) recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. There is no argument for non-intervention when a dictator or a warlord commits crimes against humanity.
The case for a supra-national defense of basic political and civil rights may be less self-evident, but it is strong nonetheless. Being a respected member of the international community entails an obligation not to lock up political opponents or steal elections. The Inter-American Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States imposes such obligations on its signatories and contemplates sanctions – including expulsion from the OAS – for repeat offenders. The sad fact that the Charter’s provisions are not always enforced (doing so requires the vote of an absolute majority of members) does not make their existence any less morally indispensable.
Although Maduro has no plausible legal claim on the presidency, he insists on clinging to power. The question is not whether the world’s democracies should intervene, but how. The only test foreign leaders should apply follows from what Max Weber called the ethic of responsibility: What will be the consequence of my actions? Will they make the situation better?
Misguided interventions could conceivably make the situation worse. For example, bellicose rhetoric by US President Donald Trump could ignite nationalist sentiment in Venezuela. But smart intervention from the world’s democracies is already having beneficial effects. Sustained political and financial pressure that keeps raising the costs for the country’s armed forces to prop up Maduro – together with a well-timed offer of amnesty – may make a political transition inevitable.
In recent years, the international community justified its passivity by claiming that the opposition was divided and that no foreign action could conceivably help dislodge Maduro. That time is long past. After two decades during which they destroyed the democratic institutions of Venezuela and wrecked its economy, the nightmare unleashed by the late Hugo Chávez and made colossally worse by his successor, Maduro, may finally be coming to an end.
As they have so many times in history, defenders of dictatorship will try to stifle change by issuing increasingly shrill demands for non-intervention. The world should pay them no heed.
Andrés Velasco, a former presidential candidate and finance minister of Chile, is Dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Project Syndicate, 2019.