MADRID — It has been the destiny of Venezuela to bounce between the extremes of oppression and freedom. The crisis now convulsing the country follows this historical pattern. Every day, Venezuelans of all stripes pour into the streets protesting the loss of their freedom and their constitutional rights by a tyrannical regime that condemns them to scarcity, illness, malnutrition and outright hunger. Social media has given us a wealth of shocking images: the National Guard firing indiscriminately into crowds, killings, tanks moving against demonstrators. A daily Tiananmen while President Nicolás Maduro dances salsa.
However, Chavista power in Venezuela is continuing its decline from its glory days with Hugo Chávez. On Tuesday, a rogue faction of police apparently dropped grenades from a helicopter onto the Supreme Court in Caracas in what Mr. Maduro called a “coup plot.”
We cannot simply wait for the resolution of this drama as if it were a television series. In spite of the Organization of American States’ failureto reach an agreement to condemn the Maduro administration’s atrocities, Venezuela needs a rapid solution. And we cannot abandon the Venezuelan people in their fight for economic rescue and political freedom.
This struggle has gone on for 200 years. In its war of independence — the longest such war on the continent — Venezuelans killed one another with unbelievable savagery, including women, and children and the elderly. A quarter of the population died as well as almost all its considerable wealth of cattle. But also extreme, in ambition and intensity, were the activities and programs of Simón Bolívar, the liberator of five future Latin American nations. And the same was true of his contemporary Andrés Bello, perhaps the greatest republican thinker of 19th-century Latin America.
Venezuela suffered through long periods of dictatorship and achieved constitutional order only in 1959, at the hands of another extraordinary figure, Rómulo Betancourt, the first Latin American convert from communism to democracy. Unfortunately, democracy confronted an expiration date. In 1998, the Venezuelan people, tired of a two-party regime stained by corruption and social inequalities, voted Hugo Chávez into power. Much more than a populist, he was a redeemer skilled at and addicted to the intense use of media.
I was present for that penultimate cycle of this longstanding but now intensified tension. I traveled to Venezuela at various times and spoke to numerous Chavistas, from important government functionaries to social leaders, and was impressed by the spontaneous testimony, in poor neighborhoods, by Venezuelans approving the man who, they would say, “took them into account for the first time.” I felt that Mr. Chávez’s social commitment was genuine but that putting it into practice did not require the installation of a dictatorship. In 2008, the minister of finance, Alí Rodríguez Araque, disagreed with me. “We’re constructing a communal state,” he said, “which the Soviets, the Chinese and the Cubans have not been able to do.”
“On what do you base your optimism?” I asked.
“On the price of oil. It’s now at $150 per barrel and it will go up to $250.”
“And if the price falls, as in 1982 Mexico, and bankrupts the country?”
“I’m sure it will get to $250,” he answered.
(At present it stands at about $45 per barrel.)
I also spoke with anti-Chavistas from various walks of life. The dismantling of Petróleos de Venezuela, the highly productive oil corporation nationalized in 1975, and its astounding present level of corruption alarmed them. But their principal concern was the destruction of democracy: the confiscation of the major private television broadcaster, Radio Caracas Televisión, and Mr. Chávez’s growing personal domination over the government branches and electoral functions. There was a clear drift toward totalitarianism that Mr. Chávez had foreshadowed in his first visit to Cuba, when he had expressed his wish to be “el todo” — “the embodiment of everything” — as Fidel Castro had become in Cuba.
The death of Mr. Chávez was followed by the anointment (in a monarchical style) of his successor. But nothing prepared Venezuelans for the disaster that followed. There has been terrible economic and social destruction. Across 15 years, a trillion dollars’ worth of oil income has been squandered and 80 percent of Venezuelans have fallen into poverty. The estimated inflation rate for 2017 is 720 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Venezuela has become the Zimbabwe of the Americas, a shameless alliance of corrupt politicians and the military acquiescent to the dictates of Cuba. Some of these leaders are accused of involvement in international drug trafficking. They have kidnapped the Latin American nation that is richest in oil resources, which they wish to appropriate for themselves, permanently and at whatever human cost it may require.
The killings by Mr. Maduro’s government are not yet comparable to the genocidal dictatorships of Chile and Argentina in the 1970s. Nor is the government a carbon copy of the Castro regime, which ended, with one stroke, all autonomous freedoms and institutions and is the longest-lasting dictatorship in modern history.
But the pressure toward totalitarianism by the Maduro government has been met by heroic resistance, recalling the Solidarity movement in Poland and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia but with much greater spilling of blood.
It is impossible to know how all this will end. But there is a potential answer, one that Rómulo Betancourt formulated in 1959 and that has been reaffirmed by the O.A.S. secretary, Luis Almagro, whose valiant leadership has restored the dignity and initiative of the organization. It is recognized in international law as the Betancourt Doctrine:
“Regimes that do not respect human rights and violate the freedoms of their citizens,” it says, “should be submitted to a rigorous quarantine and eradicated through the collective action of the international juridical community.”
Nothing can be expected from dictatorial regimes like China or Russia or those Latin American and Caribbean countries still benefiting, albeit precariously, from Venezuelan subsidies in oil — it was these countries that blocked the recent attempt at condemnation of the regime by the O.A.S. Perhaps President Barack Obama might have had some effect on the Cuban government, but it would be best if the Trump administration, with its lack of moral legitimacy, does not intervene.
And yet, in solidarity with the courageous Venezuelan people, Europe and the major countries of Latin America could support a quarantine — diplomatic, financial, commercial and political — of the outlaw regime of Mr. Maduro. They might persuade the first Latin American pope to take a stronger stand and together pressure Raúl Castro to accept a democratic solution: a halt to the repression, immediate elections, the re-establishment of civil liberties, respect for democratic institutions and the release of political prisoners.