A Bold, Risky Stroke for Democracy in Venezuela

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The decision by Juan Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, to declare himself interim president until new elections can be held has left his country teetering between an outbreak of civil war and the restoration of democracy. Achieving the latter will require cool heads in Venezuela, and calm and resolute diplomacy by its democratic friends and neighbors.

Guaido says Venezuela’s constitution supports the move. The assembly had earlier declared Maduro’s presidency illegitimate, arguing that last May’s election was rigged. At least 60 countries rejected the results, and next to no European or Latin American countries sent representatives to his inauguration earlier this month. Meanwhile, demonstrations called by the opposition have brought tens of thousands of angry Venezuelans into the streets. Guaido has been recognized by most countries in Latin America as well as Canada and the United States.

President Nicolas Maduro is likely to be unmoved. After the opposition won control of the assembly in 2016, his packed Supreme Court stripped it of power. In the subsequent snap presidential election, opposition candidates were disqualified or imprisoned, voters suppressed, and ballots manipulated.

Under Maduro’s rule, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves has become one of its biggest exporters of refugees. Nearly 3 million have fled. The economy has collapsed. Output has fallen by more than half since 2013, and inflation this year is forecast at 10 million percent — not that anybody’s still counting. Factories have shut down, investors have gone on strike, and supplies of water and electricity are failing. Daily life for ordinary Venezuelans is a struggle for food, medicine and other basic necessities.

Guaido’s hope is that popular protest and international pressure will affirm his legal authority, win over members of the military, and compel Maduro to step down. It’s an enormous gamble. It could trigger armed conflict between different military factions, to say nothing of violence by the so-called colectivos, bands of thugs whom the regime has recruited and armed over the years. A standoff between two presidents claiming authority will raise a host of diplomatic and legal quandaries: Even as Maduro has broken off diplomatic relations with the U.S., for instance, Guaido has urged U.S. diplomats to stay in place.

The countries that have recognized Guaido’s authority need to be cautious about how they support him. Imposing embargoes on Venezuelan oil exports, for instance, would hurt not just Maduro’s regime but ordinary Venezuelans as well. Better for those governments, in the first instance, to persuade others — notably Mexico — to join them in recognizing Guaido.

A Bold, Risky Stroke for Democracy in Venezuela

In addition, the European Union, which has called for an “immediate political process leading to free and credible elections,” should stand ready to expand its (so far limited) sanctions. Members of the so-called Lima Group of 14 nations should implement the travel bans and asset freezes that most of them agreed to this month and, in coordination with the U.S. and EU, name more targets. All should work to provide immediate humanitarian assistance and declare their support for aid and debt assistance once democracy is restored.

This week was a setback for Venezuela’s tyrannical and lethally incompetent government. Let’s hope that Guaido’s gamble ends well. Getting from here to the right outcome is going to require the help of outsiders.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.