By Farida Saka

Venezuela today has two presidents. The 2018 presidential election re-elected president Nicolas Maduro, and his term started in January. The election was considered void by the Venezuela National Assembly and appointed Assembly Speaker Juan Guaido as interim president. Guido has the support of sixty percent of Venezuelans and over 65 countries, while Maduro has the support of the ruling party, the security forces, and 50 United Nations Member States.

Venezuela’s armed forces should denounce the presidency of Nicolas Maduro to open negotiation between him and Guaido. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries onto Venezuelan officials is not enough to force Maduro to step down. Imposing sanctions on the top security officials that support Madoru would force the military to concede.

Maduro inherited an economic crisis in Venezuela that began during the presidency of Hugo Chavez. During Hugo’s administration (1998-2013), inflation dropped to its lowest in the country since the late 1980s. Unemployment rates went from 14.5 percent in 1999 to 7.8 percent in 2011 and oil prices collapsed in 2013. After Chavez’s death in 2013, the economic crisis has intensified under Maduro’s regime. In 2014, the continued decline in oil prices put the country’s economy in jeopardy. Venezuelans are fleeing the country due to a shortage of resources, diminishing the country’s workforce. The decline in workers has also affected oil production in the country.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, three million refugees and migrants from Venezuela have fled the country. Corruption is also high. The public service sector lacks transparency, and bribes are paid by companies for favorable treatment. The Judiciary system lacks independence and is highly politicized. The police are poorly trained and underfunded, and appointments are based on party loyalty and not on professional competence. Impunity is also a serious problem among police officers.

In Maduro’s administration, human rights violations, restrictions on freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests of opponents, and extrajudicial detention have become systematic. For more than a decade, the government used its power to regulate media and reduce the number of dissenting media outlets. Journalists are being detained, and most are expelled or deported from Venezuela. According to Amnesty International, the government detained more than 900 people between January 21-31. Among those arrested, 137 are children and adolescents, 10 of whom are still in detention. There have been allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.

Anti-Maduro protests have become common since the beginning of the year. Protests intensified as he banned humanitarian aid from entering the country, authorizing military blockades across the country’s borders. There is a massive shortage of medicine, medical supplies, and food in the country, and the lack of these resources could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans. The February 23 protests held across the country’s borders were in response to the blockade and an attempt to force president Maduro to step down. Loads of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for delivery in Venezuela tried to cross the Colombia and Brazil side of the borders and failed. The protest descended into violence and chaos. In Pacaraima, Brazil, Venezuelan military forces shot and killed four protesters and injured 300 while ‘colectivos,’ a pro-Maduro paramilitary, opened fire and injured 24  protesters. In Cucuta, Columbia, Venezuela’s military launched tear gas and opened fire at protesters. Two hundred and fifty tons of humanitarian aid from Puerto Rico was forced to turn back due to threats from the Venezuelan navy to open fire.

The EU, Canada, Switzerland, the United States, and some Latin American countries imposed targeted economic sanctions on over 50 Venezuela officials implicated in corruption and human rights violations. They canceled visas and froze assets. The United States expanded its economic sanctions in 2017 to prevent dealing in new stock and bonds issued by the Venezuelan government and its state oil company. Maduro sympathizers might argue that the economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela officials would hurt the citizens more than the officials, stating that it would be detrimental to the country’s economy. However, Venezuela’s economy is already in crisis and is not currently creating jobs or providing for its citizens.

The United States and the 50 other countries who recognize Guaido should impose sanctions on Venezuela’s top military and security personnel associated with violence against Venezuelans, international communities who attempted to deliver humanitarian aid into the country, the head of the National Guard, Army, Police force, and any official that supports Maduro and helps him maintain power. President Maduro wants to expand the Venezuelan military with an increase of a million militia to defend his government.

Imposing targeted sanctions will force Venezuela’s armed forces to withdraw its support for Maduro. The military will be able to revoke Maduro’s order to enforce blockades at Venezuela’s borders. Without the military barriers, delivery of humanitarian aid can commence.  Maduro will also be forced to step down as president since he wouldn’t be able to maintain his power without the security forces to back him up. Open negotiation would commence between the ruling and opposition party and gradual transitions can be made to return Venezuela to democracy. Most importantly, there would be a reduction in protests in the country that result in the deaths of Venezuelan citizens.

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Farida Saka is an M.A. candidate specializing in International Affairs and Development with a regional focus in Africa at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She previously studied at Bloomsburg University where she earned a B.A. in Political Science and Political Economics.