Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and the band of criminals who call the shots in that country on Thursday smothered any hope for a constitutional, democratic recall that would have allowed voters to replace his repressive and hapless regime. The country's democratic forces now are rallying the people to confront Maduro, whose government is incapable of resolving food shortages and social chaos wrought by nearly 20 years of abusive rule.
Until now, President Obama has preferred "dialogue" between the regime and its victims, even at the cost of keeping Maduro in power. However, the recent antidemocratic steps directed by hardliners in the regime are a direct challenge to Washington and the international community. How they respond will determine whether Venezuela hurdles toward violence or recovers its democracy.
Since Maduro's Socialist Party (PSUV) lost national legislative elections in a landslide a year ago, he has wielded executive and judicial powers to defy the popular vote that gave the democratic opposition a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Suspect judicial rulings by a supreme court packed with PSUV cronies have nullified virtually every legislative act. In recent weeks the president and the court defunded the Assembly's operations and usurped its authority to approve the national budget. Maduro has issued repeated threats to dissolve the national legislature altogether.
For months, the opposition has run a procedural obstacle course to invoke a provision of the constitution to allow citizens to convene a recall referendum to oust Maduro and trigger a snap election to choose a successor. According to a late September poll, nearly 70 percent of Venezuelans would vote to oust Maduro.
Until last week, the Maduro-controlled electoral council grudgingly facilitated the referendum, while placing bureaucratic hurdles to delay the process. On Thursday, however, PSUV authorities voided the referendum altogether, canceling a three-day petition drive that was set to begin this week. Clearly, the regime preferred the political repercussions from killing the recall outright to the spectacle of several million Venezuelans mobilizing to repudiate Maduro.
The National Assembly on Sunday declared a "rupture in constitutional order" and moved to delegitimize Maduro, and the opposition leadership has called for a mass mobilization this Wednesday. As Venezuelan citizens protest this political crackdown, a peaceful outcome depends on whether they receive help from abroad.
Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has been trying to rally the region to deal with the crisis, not by ousting or sanctioning Venezuela, but by holding the government accountable to its commitments to respect democracy and human rights. On Friday, Almagro said the time had come for "concrete actions" by the Venezuelan people and the international community.
Thomas Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, has been working for years to head off a crisis in Venezuela on President Obama's watch. By killing the referendum outright, the regime is wagering that Obama's do-nothing strategy will not change. However, what career diplomat wants to explain to the next U.S. president the decision to punt this worsening crisis to Obama's successor?
This next week will be critical: Will the people take to the streets to demand their constitutional rights? Will the military side with the constitution or criminals? Will regional governments—especially those under new democratic presidents in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru—stand up to reject a new dictatorship in Venezuela? Will the United States adopt a new strategy, now that averting a meltdown appears increasingly impossible?
In addition to backing OAS action, the Obama administration can target the criminal henchmen who have dictated a crackdown on democracy because they fear that a transition will land them in jail. The President should instruct the Treasury Department to expose and freeze the assets of regime leaders involved in drug trafficking, theft of state resources, and money laundering. The criminal activities of former National Assembly Diosdado Cabello and Aragua state governor Tareck El-Aissami have been denounced publicly for more than a year.
Obama should also use his relationship with the Castro regime to arrange Maduro's asylum in Cuba. Finally, Venezuela's military leadership must be warned not to use force to deny people their constitutional rights. If professionals in the security forces do their jobs, they can help salvage a democratic and prosperous Venezuela.
Increased support from the international community—including intelligent measures by the United States to put notorious kleptocrats in check—can help Venezuelans win peaceful change, prevent a bloody confrontation, and resolve a humanitarian crisis. It's not too late to do the right thing.
Roger F. Noriega was U.S. Ambassador to the OAS and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2001-05. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and his firm Visión Américas LLC represents U.S. and foreign clients. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.