Bello | Punishing Nicolás Maduro

DESPITE four months of protests, more than 120 deaths and mounting diplomatic pressure, Nicolás Maduro has got away with it. Venezuela’s president has imposed a rigged constituent assembly to replace the elected, opposition-controlled parliament. He is ruling as a dictator, jailing or harassing scores of opponents. This poses a stark question: what, if anything, can be done to restore democracy?

In the short term, the answer is not much. The protests have stopped. Mr Maduro has the opposition where he wants it: split as to whether or not to participate in an overdue election for regional governors next month, organised by the same tame electoral authority that shamelessly inflated the turnout for the constituent assembly vote from under 4m to 8.5m. For now, the main threats to Mr Maduro’s regime come from elsewhere—from outsiders and from its acute shortage of money.

The United States has responded to the slide to dictatorship by ordering sanctions against 21 Venezuelan officials whom the administration of Donald Trump holds responsible for human-rights violations, corruption or the organisation of the new assembly. They are denied visas and Americans are barred from doing business with them. Last month the administration went further, imposing selective financial sanctions designed to make it impossible for Venezuela’s government and PDVSA, the state oil company, to raise fresh debt in New York.

Mr Maduro’s predictable response has been to denounce imperialist intervention. Few Latin American governments instinctively warm to the idea of Yanqui sanctions; many were horrified by Mr Trump’s talk of a “military option”. But unlike the economic embargo against Cuba, these sanctions are limited and do not extend to third countries. They are supported not just by conservatives, such as Marco Rubio, a Republican senator, but also by human-rights groups. Without sanctions, Venezuela’s leaders would face “no tangible pressure” to change their conduct, says José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group.

The question is whether they will be effective. Ricky Waddell, the deputy national security adviser, told a conference this month that they are aimed both at punishing the regime and at pressing it to return to democracy. Some worry that those goals are contradictory.

Sceptics argue that to work the sanctions need to be multilateral (and reversible if the regime engages in serious negotiations with the opposition). Both the European Union and the main Latin American countries have denounced the rupturing of democracy but have yet to take much action. Spain is pushing the EU to apply sanctions against individuals.

Mr Maduro’s dictatorship poses an unprecedented diplomatic challenge to democratic Latin America. At a meeting in Lima last month, 11 of the region’s governments (plus Canada) agreed not to recognise the constituent assembly, nor support any Venezuelan candidacy in regional or international bodies. To deny Venezuela a platform, they are seeking to postpone a biennial summit between Latin America and the EU due next month. But as a Latin American diplomat notes, the region does not seem to know what further action to take. It is not clear whether the Lima group has the ability or stomach to suspend Venezuela from all regional bodies—which would hurt Mr Maduro symbolically—and investigate illicit Venezuelan fortunes.

Mr Maduro’s response to outside pressure is to draw even closer to authoritarian allies. His government has savagely squeezed imports in order to continue to service its foreign debt of around $100bn because it fears that if it defaults creditors would seize oil shipments. To meet debt payments of $4bn later this year, it is likely to tap Russia and China for extra funds.

Chinese officials have voiced concern over their exposure to Venezuela, but are unlikely to cut loose an ally parked on the doorstep of the United States. Russia seems to spy opportunity: Rosneft, a Russian oil company, lent Venezuela $1bn in April in return for oil concessions. Venezuela recently asked to restructure its bilateral debt, according to Russia’s finance minister.

Outsiders have repeatedly underestimated Mr Maduro’s determination to cling to power at the expense of destroying his country. Yet in the long run his attempt to turn Venezuela into a communist dictatorship on Cuban lines is unlikely to succeed. His regime is corrupt and unloved. His country is not an island and has a stronger democratic tradition than Cuba. Nevertheless, opponents, both inside and outside, have much work to do to end Venezuela’s nightmare.