It is impossible to overstate the gravity of the situation now facing the people of Venezuela: children fainting at school from malnutrition; even basic medicines unavailable; the return of deadly disease; rampant corruption; and the mass exodus of anyone able-bodied. But the collapse of Venezuela goes way beyond a political challenge.
Last April, I attended a secret dinner held in a private room above a Caracas neighborhood restaurant. The five members of the Venezuelan National Assembly gathered there had been elected as part of a new majority in opposition to the Maduro regime. Nicolas Maduro responded by trying to disband the National Assembly, change the constitution, and create a sham parallel body filled with his loyal supporters.
These five, all in their 30s and despite, in several cases, having been elected in areas that favor the former socialist President Hugo Chávez, were marked as opponents of the regime. They were very open about their fate.
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They collectively and ominously warned that if Maduro proceeded with the rigged election and I returned the next year, I would not find them there. They said it was likely that two would be jailed, two exiled and one would just disappear. They had seen firsthand how the Maduro regime treated its opponents. Their stark comments were a grim reminder that political contests in many countries can turn deadly.
Now, despite the Maduro regime, there is hope
Seated at our table that night with his fellow National Assembly members was Juan Guaidó.
On Jan. 23, 35-year-old Guaidó, recently chosen as the National Assembly president, stood before a crowd of thousands at a demonstration in Caracas and declared himself the head of state as called for under the Venezuelan Constitution. At this rally, he called for a free, credible election just weeks after Maduro had been sworn in to a new term.
Around the world, leaders expressed their choice in this power struggle. China, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Turkey announced support for Maduro. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a longtime Maduro supporter, warned the United States not to interfere.
The United States, Canada, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, and all but a couple countries in the Americas recognized Guaidó (Australia and the European Parliament have since done so as well). Maduro initially responded by threatening to expel U.S. diplomats.
Last week, I spoke at length to interim President Guaidó from my office in the Capitol. Our conversation was carefully channeled so his location would not be disclosed to the Maduro regime.
Despite the enormous risk ahead, Guaidó was hopeful and deeply thoughtful about a new path forward to lift his country’s isolation and despair. His love of country and desire to help the long suffering Venezuelan people were overpowering. He remembered the ominous prediction from our dinner last year but said, “Now there is some hope.” He thanked the United States for our $20 million in emergency assistance just announced to help ease the humanitarian crisis in his country. He told me of the incredible outpouring of international support for this desperately needed transition.
It reminded me of my meeting with Maduro during that same visit last year, when I told him Venezuela’s international isolation and human suffering would only worsen if he plowed ahead with a rigged election — which is of course exactly what happened.
Rejoining the community of democracies
President Guaidó noted that the Venezuelan people, including those around Maduro and in the security services, are ready for a path forward that returns the country to the community of democracies. He appealed to them to work on a peaceful path forward. And I for one, having met with Guaidó and his elected colleagues and seen the horrific human suffering under Maduro, stand in support of this effort.
The events in Venezuela have understandably raised some concerns of echoes of ill-fated military coups and U.S. intervention in Latin America. But a closer look at what is happening in Venezuela and the region shows it is anything but a throwback to the era of Cuban invasions or toppling elected Latin governments, and it is also much bigger than President Donald Trump or the United States alone.
In fact, the Organization of American States warned Maduro not to proceed with a rigged election. The OAS and left- and right-leaning Latin American governments refused to recognize the ensuing illegitimate results, and they supported a constitutional transition process in which the elected head of the Venezuelan National Assembly assumes an interim leadership role in such a situation until new elections can be held.
These events are a welcome development of Latin American nations defending democracy and the OAS Democratic Charter in their own neighborhood. It’s about democratic change coming from within Venezuela.
Sen. Dick Durbin is the senior senator from Illinois and the Democratic whip. Follow him on Twitter @SenatorDurbin.