Latin America Leaders Brood: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maduro?


And so leaders at the summit were left facing a difficult question: What could be done about Venezuela?

Disinviting its president was one step. Peru, saying that it and a dozen other countries felt democracy was unraveling there, clawed back its invitation. Mr. Maduro vowed to crash the event anyway — “by air, land or sea,” he said — but ultimately decided not to try to attend.

Other countries have taken steps to isolate Venezuela further.

In late March, Panama put Mr. Maduro and other government officials on a list of potential money launderers; in doing so, it joined the United States and Canada, which have both issued targeted sanctions. Most large countries in the region have refused to recognize the Constituent Assembly, a new body Mr. Maduro created last year to replace the country’s National Assembly, which was controlled by his opposition.

“The response of the region has been unprecedented,” said David Smilde, a sociology professor at Tulane University and an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.

But, he added, “External pressure goes only so far — you have to have a viable opposition from within.”


Nicolás Maduro at a rally in Caracas, Venezuela, this year. Unwelcome at the Summit of the Americas, he vowed to crash the event “by air, land or sea.” Ultimately, he decided stay away. Credit Edwinge Montilva/European Pressphoto Agency

Hopes among opposition politicians reached their peak last year when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets to demand food and new elections. The protests continued for months, despite a deadly crackdown by the government that left more than 100 dead in street clashes.

But Mr. Maduro eventually gained the upper hand, and when the protests ended, the opposition was left divided on what to do next. The most pressing decision was the presidential election on May 20, which the main coalition of opposition parties has chosen to boycott.

Yet even the boycott has provoked disagreement, with some opposition politicians running anyway, including Henri Falcón, a former state governor in Mr. Maduro’s party who is now challenging the president, though his candidacy is considered a long shot.

“There’s no conditions for transparent elections,” said Margarita López Maya, a retired political scientist who taught at the Central University of Venezuela. “Maduro will get whatever numbers he decides on Election Day.”

The region’s leaders have been watching what role the United States will play in the crisis.

Last year, President Trump said he might consider using the military against Mr. Maduro. Though considered an empty threat, it was the kind of rhetoric that allowed Mr. Maduro to characterize his opponents as American pawns.

Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to the meeting after Mr. Trump abruptly canceled to manage the military operation in Syria, told reporters on Saturday that the coming election in Venezuela was a “sham.”


The police standing guard outside the Venezuelan Embassy in Peru during a demonstration on Thursday, prior to the start of the summit meeting. Credit Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

“The world is not deceived,” said Mr. Pence, who had earlier announced a new round of American aid to deal with the refugee crisis and promised tougher sanctions against the Maduro government. “Democracy has collapsed, dictatorship has arisen.”

During his closing speech at the summit meeting, Mr. Pence called on nations throughout the region to band together with the United States to further isolate Mr. Maduro. “Under the Maduro regime, Venezuela is essentially a failed state,” Mr. Pence told the attendees.

On Friday, Mr. Pence met with exiled Venezuelan opposition leaders, saying “we’ll continue to do everything in our power to provide sustenance and support to those who have fled this tyranny.”

Antonio Ledezma, the former mayor of Caracas, now living in exile in Spain, made an impassioned plea to Mr. Pence to ratchet up pressure on the Maduro government, and provide “not only humanitarian aid, but humanitarian intervention.”

He argued that additional sanctions should target the Maduro government’s wealth, including actions to “seize planes, yachts, mansions.”

Other leaders attending the summit pointed to Mr. Pence’s presence as an attempt at foreign meddling in the region.

“The principal threat to peace, to Mother Earth and multilateralism is the United States. I have no fear to say that much,” said President Evo Morales of Bolivia, a leftist who remains a staunch supporter of the Maduro government. “These aren’t times for invasions, they’re times for integration.”

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