While Venezuelans are forced to eat rabbits, Maduro tries to fool the world

Facing escalating international sanctions, Venezuela’s autocrat Nicolas Maduro is offering a new “dialogue” with the opposition and national elections at the end of 2018. But there are powerful reasons to suspect that Maduro is bluffing, and for continuing to escalate international pressures on him.

After violent anti-government protests that left more than 130 people dead in recent months and U.S. financial sanctions against top officials of his regime, Maduro called for a new “dialogue” with the opposition. Government envoys recently met with opposition leaders for exploratory talks in the Dominican Republic, and there are plans to invite a “group of friendly countries” — made up of Mexico, Chile, Bolivia and Nicaragua — to oversee formal negotiations that could start Sept. 27 in the Dominican Republic.

Maduro promised on Sept. 17 that there will be elections for state governors on Oct. 15, municipal elections in the first three months of 2018, and presidential elections in the last three months of next year. Under Venezuela’s constitution, presidential elections should be held in 2018.

Problem is, we have seen this movie several times before. At every low point of his regime, he has called for a national dialogue with the opposition and promised local and national elections, only to renege once he managed to weather the storm or public protests on the streets.

In 2014, Maduro offered a dialogue supervised by the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR,  that led the opposition to temporarily suspend protests and focus on 2015 legislative elections. Despite government press censorship and electoral rules designed to hurt opposition candidates, the opposition won the December 2015 legislative elections by a landslide.

But shortly thereafter, Maduro violated the will of the people. He first banned several elected opposition congressmen from taking office — in effect, stripping opposition parties from having an absolute majority in the National Assembly that would have allowed them to impeach top government officials. Later, he used the government-controlled Supreme Court to start chipping away congressional powers.

In 2016, facing new opposition riots, Maduro once again called for a dialogue. This time, the dialogue was brokered by UNASUR and the Vatican, and chaired by former Spanish president Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. That dialogue produced an agreement to work jointly toward freeing political prisoners, reviewing the cases of the opposition legislators banned by the government, recognizing the constitutional rights of the National Assembly and respecting the official electoral schedule.

Once again, Maduro not only failed to meet his part of the deal, but further clamped down on democratic freedoms.

He stepped up arrests of opposition politicians, failed to hold the elections for governors that were scheduled for 2016, and further curtailed the remaining constitutional powers of the National Assembly. Even worse, he recently created a parallel Congress, which he calls the Constituent Assembly.

Now, Maduro is facing a humanitarian crisis — Venezuela’s food shortages have led his regime to start distributing rabbits, and to ask people to let them reproduce and eat them — and growing international sanctions. The Trump administration has slapped financial sanctions on top Venezuelan officials and the government-run oil sector, and the 28-country European Union is considering similar moves.

“The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing,” President Donald Trump stated before the United Nations on Sept. 19, 2017. He later called on other countries to do more to address the crisis in Venezuela under the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro which “has inflicted terrible misery and suffering on the good people of that country.”

Chile’s foreign minister Heraldo Munoz told me in an interview this week that the proposed mediation by the “group of friendly countries” may have a chance to succeed because “the situation has become much more serious, and the international community has become much more active.”

Maybe so, but in order not to fall into Maduro’s trap once again, the international community should keep escalating the pressure on the Maduro regime.

The Trump administration, European and Latin American governments should further search and freeze the assets of corrupt Maduro regime officials in their countries, and demand that all new oil contracts with Venezuela be approved by the opposition majority National Assembly that was constitutionally elected in 2015. They should also recall their ambassadors to Venezuela, to further isolate Maduro.

And the proposed “group of friendly countries” should condition its mediation effort to Maduro, allowing the Oct. 15 elections for governors to be free and fair, with credible international observers, and to fully respect its outcome. Otherwise, Maduro is going to continue playing games to buy time, and wait for a miracle, while Venezuela becomes a new Cuba.

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