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In Venezuela, it’s time to save lives

Anti-government activists stand near a barricade Sunday in

Anti-government activists stand near a barricade Sunday in Valencia, Venezuela. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Ronaldo Schemidt

The unraveling of the last democratic institution in Venezuela came with the recent fraudulent election of a new constituent assembly whose members include the wife and son of President Nicolas Maduro and cronies of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

This illegal assembly will draft a constitution, establishing a dictatorship. Defying the calls from other governments and international groups to annul the election results, the Maduro government made clear its intentions to effectively end any semblance of a democratic state.

For the citizens of a nation once considered the poster-child of democratic rule in Latin America, the tragedy is compounded with a humanitarian crisis. There are virtually no medicines available, and grocery stores have empty shelves even as people line up before daybreak to shop. Only party functionaries and the military have easy access to food. These conditions are akin to war-torn Syria than to what was once one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

To consider policy options in Venezuela, we need to understand the history of non-intervention and consensus in the region. One of the principles of the regional governance is that states do not meddle in the internal affairs of others.

Non-intervention is a thorny issue given the legacy of United States in the region. Uncle Sam has been an easy target to blame for anything that goes wrong. Despite bipartisan calls to address the crisis, with new sanctions on members of the Maduro government, our regional allies in the hemisphere are not inclined to trust us. The most recent evidence of this lingering unease came in the form of a call by the government of Peru to gather foreign ministers in the region on Tuesday in Lima to address the “illegitimate” elections. Absent from the list was the United States.

Consensus is required for any action by the Organization of American States. Even though the OAS charter has outlined procedures for addressing disruptions in democratic rule, its ability to take action in Venezuela has been stymied by a small group of Caribbean states whose energy depends on Venezuelan oil. The United Nations may be able to denounce the actions of the Maduro government, but any type of uninvited intervention under the UN charter would be met with vetoes in the Security Council, presumably from Russia and China.

Fourteen countries in the hemisphere have called for action, but even Brazil, the largest nation in South America, is hobbled by its own internal political crisis. Even the Vatican has not been able to act as a mediator in building a dialogue between Maduro and the opposition, despite the country’s 70 percent Catholic population.

To stop the deadly violence that has marred the country since March, negotiations with Maduro should first address what Pope Francis and his Vatican diplomats requested: the creation of a humanitarian corridor to allow relief to flow into the country. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres does not need the votes of the Security Council to request the UN humanitarian agencies to assess the needs of a starving people or get children medical care.

In the coming days and months more Venezuelans will risk their lives at the barricades to protest the demise of their once democratic state. They will be inspired by the words of Venezuela’s founder, Simon Bolivar, who said that “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is right.” Maduro’s illegitimate constituent assembly is evidence that his actions continue to make these words ring hollow. Venezuela has a long-term political illness that will take another generation to cure.

Now is the time for save lives.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries Program, and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.