President Donald Trump has launched a new push for democracy in Venezuela, and, for once, he enjoys support from governments in Europe and Latin America. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada - who’s hardly a Trump acolyte - and even a significant number of Democratic lawmakers in Congress are also on board.
In the United States, criticism so far has come mainly from progressives such as Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who tweeted: “The US is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy.” “If Trump and (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo are so worried about human rights and democracy in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., chimed in, “why do they actively support horrible regimes in Brazil, Guatemala, and Honduras?”
This sort of left-wing whataboutism was probably inevitable, but, well, what about it? Does hypocrisy disqualify Trump’s policy? Or is there a principled basis for selective concern about Venezuela?
The answer begins with the sheer magnitude of the suffering and chaos in that South American country, which far exceed the suffering and chaos in all but a few of the world’s failed states.
Venezuela’s formerly prosperous oil-based economy has collapsed, with inflation running at an unfathomable 1.3 million percent and 8 of 10 Venezuelans surveyed reporting that they do not have enough food at home.
The homicide rate is 58 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world. In 1961, Venezuela was certified to have eliminated malaria, but the disease is back, affecting more than 400,000 people in 2017.
About 3 million of the country’s 32 million people have fled since 2014, with nearly half a million going to the United States and Spain (combined), and the rest to Venezuela’s overwhelmed Latin American neighbors.
Much of this catastrophe is traceable to the policy mistakes and corruption of the current leftist regime, headed by President Nicolas Maduro. The last pillars of Maduro’s government are the military and intelligence services, supported from outside by Cuba, Russia, China and Iran.
Though perhaps no more repressive than numerous others, the Venezuelan dictatorship is differentiated from, say, Saudi Arabia’s, in that it sits atop the ruins of what was once a multiparty democracy, which a large portion of its domestic population remembers and wants to renew. Maduro holds office today thanks to a stolen election last year, the destruction of press freedom and the jailing of political opponents.
Apologists for the regime blame U.S. sanctions and destabilization for Venezuela’s problems. The truth is that, with the exception of the George W. Bush administration’s brief, halfhearted support for a coup attempt in 2002, Washington - learning the lessons of ill-fated Cold War interventions - has shown restraint in dealing with the Caracas regime, while Latin countries have taken the lead in denouncing it.
Until Monday, when the Trump administration announced new limitations on imports of Venezuelan oil, the United States had traded with Venezuela and focused economic pressure on regime leaders and key institutions.
The Trump administration’s current strategy, to support an interim president, Juan Guaido, whose claim to office rests on a plausible interpretation of Venezuela’s constitution, is a long shot but still the cleverest concept America and its allies have come up with yet.
As for hypocrisy, the Maduro regime’s new BFF is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government decries Trump’s “cynical, overt interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” even though it’s Moscow that swallowed up Crimea, sent nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela - and intervened in the United States’ internal affairs in 2016.
The fact that Russia’s meddling in the U.S. campaign was intended to favor Trump, whom Moscow now berates for intervening in Venezuela, certainly makes one’s head spin.
Charles Lane is a Post editorial writer specializing in economic and fiscal policy, and a weekly columnist.