Saving Venezuela: Americans can prevent a disaster unfolding on their doorstep

Standing up for freedom and justice is perhaps the very essence of the United States. From the struggles of the Founding Fathers to the millions of Americans who have mobilized around a myriad of causes. Yet, there is a humanitarian disaster in danger of slipping under our radar close to home.

In Venezuela, an entire nation stands on the brink of a man-made catastrophe. Under the oppressive rule of Hugo Chavez and now his hapless heir, Nicolas Maduro, the country has been practically bankrupted in pursuit of a communist fantasy. As a result, Venezuelans are suffering very real deprivation and find themselves at the mercy of crime and ill health. America’s democratic heritage demands action. And a brand new grass-roots organization now exists to make its voice heard.

The case for action is indisputable. For the best part of two decades,Venezuela’s regime has prospered through the mirage of oil profits. For 14 years under Chavez and since 2013 under Mr. MaduroVenezuela’s rulers have squandered the country’s significant oil riches on projects subject to corruption and the destruction of national production. Having refused to develop the country, now that the price of oil has crashed to a 12-year low, this unsustainable status quo is unraveling at a dizzying pace. Hyperinflation could reach a staggering 720 percent this year, while the country owes a massive $120 billion to international creditors. Mr. Maduro’s piecemeal nod to reform, fiddling with the ludicrously low price of fuel and the horribly bloated currency are akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Instead, he places blame for Venezuela’s implosion on a phony “economic war” being waged by opponents.

Sadly, there is little that an emasculated opposition can do to stop Mr. Maduro’s charge toward the abyss. The system is deliberately rigged to prevent change. Although the opposition handsomely defeated Mr. Maduro’s socialists in a December parliamentary election, the judiciary is packed with Mr. Maduro loyalists who block all attempts to institute reform. The system may have the trappings of democracy, but Venezuelais under the grip of a dictatorship. Street protests in 2014 were brutally suppressed, with at least 40 people killed, hundreds injured and many of those arrested tortured. Meanwhile, opposition leaders have been routinely detained and imprisoned on fictional charges, while media outlets that have the temerity to question the regime have been blocked.Mr. Maduro has even accused CNN in Spanish of “war propaganda.”

The impact of such oppression and want on the Venezuelan people is increasingly shocking. The desperate economic situation means that some Venezuelans are using bank notes as napkins — such is the currency’s lack of value. And even if money is worth the paper it is written on, there are few commodities in regular supply. Shelves are largely empty as Venezuelans stand in line for hours for basics such as milk and flour. Such shortages have fueled crime rates. Meanwhile, vital medicines are in short supply, and water and electricity shortages are increasingly common. The country is quite literally grinding to a halt.

This process must and can be stopped in its tracks before Venezuela is plunged into disaster. Genuine food and medical emergencies are a very real prospect. And because internal opponents to the regime have been silenced, it falls to those of us on the outside to prevent this nightmare scenario. This is exactly why the Venezuelan American Leadership Council (VALC) has been established. The community of 300,000 or so Venezuelan Americans have been looking at the dire situation in their former home with worry, fear and trepidation. But until this point, they have had no real outlet to make their voice heard and push for change. VALC is a grass-roots initiative, bringing Venezuelan Americans together in order to advocate for a free, democratic, safe, secure and prosperous Venezuela.

VALC has been launched partly because there is simply no time to lose. The organization has been established now because the United States is in the ideal position to help deliver change. As the situation in Venezuelacontinues to deteriorate, Mr. Maduro will inevitably look to international powers and their pockets to help maintain a modicum of stability. And there is simply no more important global power than the United States. Right now, as ties grow with Cuba, Washington has the perfect opportunity to make a difference. It must be made clear to Raul Castro that access to America’s riches is dependent on pressuring his kindred spirit Mr. Maduro for change.

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