The increasingly dystopian, socialist-led nation of Venezuela is again on fire. Rocked by social unrest that is being met with a violent response from police and pro-government forces, the regime of Nicholas Maduro is teetering. In tragedy, there is opportunity. President Donald Trump has been handed a chance to right one of the greatest injustices of Barack Obama’s presidency. By so far failing to speak out against Maduro’s brutal regime, however, Trump is repeating the mistakes of the past.
In the last week, five Venezuelans—including a 13-year-old child—have been killed either by police or by the few “protesters” demonstrating violently in support of the government. The turmoil has been ongoing for the last two weeks and follows the failure of a virtual coup by a government desperately clinging to power.
On March 29, Venezuela’s Supreme Court stripped the country’s legislature of its powers. The National Assembly’s legislative authority was assumed by the Court, which had already been packed with judges loyal to Maduro. The country’s opposition leader called the move a putsch vesting dictatorial powers in its socialist president. South American nations broke off ties with Venezuela, and the president of the Organization of American States accused Maduro of killing off the last remnants of Venezuelan democracy.
The move prompted a violent response from Venezuelan citizens who immediately took to the streets. They have not yet dispersed, despite the fact that the nation’s Supreme Court reversed itself just three days after its historic ruling. These demonstrations are by far the largest and bloodiest since similar unrest in 2014 threatened to topple the late Hugo Chavez’s regime. At a time in which the Venezuelan regime was at its most vulnerable, President Obama declined to make the most of the moment and give the government a push over the cliff it deserved.
The collapse of oil prices in 2014 led to the speedy implosion of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution.” What followed was the suffering known only to those who struggle under socialism. For months, or even years for some Venezuelans, electricity has been rationed, potable water has been in chronically short supply, and consumer goods have been all but impossible to find. As of last summer, nearly half of all Venezuelans told pollsters they could no longer afford to eat three meals per day. Many go diving for edible nuggets in trash piles and garbage dumps. Amid national starvation, social media began to populate with images and videos of Venezuelans ransacking supermarkets and dismantling delivery trucks in the desperate search for something to eat.
Even amid unprecedented violence in 2014, the Obama administration reacted to the situation with typical lethargy. Only when Congress finally passed a measure authorizing the sanctioning of Venezuelan individuals five months after the worst of the violence was quelled did the Obama administration designate conditions in Venezuela a “national emergency.” And even then, the Obama administration sanctioned only a handful of individuals.
Obama’s contempt for the unilateral exercise of American power and his desire to repair U.S. relations with the Western Hemisphere’s Marxist regimes explain the president’s reticence to confront Caracas. He revealed his distaste for the ideological divides that had for decades typified icy relations between the U.S. and its Latin American neighbors at a 2016 town hall in Argentina. “You know, you’re a capitalist Yankee dog, or you’re some crazy communist that’s gonna take away everybody’s property,” he quipped. “And those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation you should be practical and just choose from what works.” The Venezuelan model doesn’t work, and there is no choice involved. For the Venezuelans dying in the streets in pursuit of basic necessities and God-granted freedoms, this isn’t an “intellectual argument.”
The Trump White House improved on the Obama administration by moving within its first month to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s new vice president and alleged drug trafficker Tareck El Aissami in February. It is now incumbent on the administration to move again with all the alacrity necessary to destabilize this criminal regime. When it comes to crises abroad, Donald Trump’s agenda is full. Silence in the face of such a grave moral imperative and with time so short is, however, not an option. Trump must speak out on Venezuela, and he must do so soon.