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Heavily armed soldiers pin down a man wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt in a video shot last week from a high-rise building. After a few seconds, the soldiers drag their prisoner like a rag doll to the middle of the street, pull off his shirt, and kick him. As they back away, one guardsman trains his rifle on the limp body and fires a single shot at close range. The soldiers jump on motorcycles and speed away.
Welcome to Venezuela, where a military dictatorship is struggling to put down a popular revolt. Millions turned out again in the nation’s streets on Saturday to demand a return to democracy.
Nicolás Maduro’s armed forces haven’t fired on crowds in this latest rebellion. But the dictator has unleashed a brutal crackdown using surgical strikes. The Special Action Forces of the national police, a group of ruthless commandos, has been raiding poor neighborhoods that no longer support the regime. Maduro goons use Cuban intelligence to track opponents to their homes, where they are roughed up and sometimes killed. The United Nations estimates that violent clashes have claimed 40 lives and that more than 850 dissidents have been detained.
The resistance has spread to every corner of the country and every socioeconomic class. The uninitiated may wonder why Mr. Maduro, now even suffering some defections among the upper ranks of the dictatorship, thinks he can hang on.
One important reason may be foreign supporters who insist that he deserves a “dialogue” with his opponents. These supporters include Cuba and Russia, of course, but also Mexico, Uruguay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, the pope and an assortment of American apologists.
Mr. Maduro has figured out that greater violence spurs more calls for “compromise” from these quarters. He has already warned that he will blame asymmetric war on the U.S., even as his actions invite it. At a Saturday rally he called on his militia to take up arms.
For nearly 20 years the antidemocratic Bolivarian Revolution has promised reconciliation whenever it faced mass demonstrations like those of the past few weeks. It never delivers, but Mr. Maduro thinks the ruse can work again.
Opponents of international support to topple Mr. Maduro have tried to delegitimize Juan Guaidó, the country’s interim president. In a letter to the Journal last week, California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna claimed that “popular vote, a decision by the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal, death or resignation” are the only ways under the constitution’s Article 233 for Mr. Maduro to be ousted from the presidency.
Mr. Khanna’s understanding of the Venezuelan Constitution is flawed. I consulted constitutional scholar Allan Brewer-Carías, a professor emeritus at Universidad Central de Venezuela. He said that the constitution gave the democratically elected National Assembly the power to declare the May 2018 re-election of Mr. Maduro invalid. It did so at the time because the election didn’t meet minimum democratic standards. The Lima Group of Latin American nations, Canada, the Group of Seven leading industrial nations and the European Union all refused to recognize the election for the same reasons.
As a result, when Mr. Maduro’s first term expired on Jan. 10 there was no legitimately elected president and the seat was legally vacant. According to the constitution, the job then fell to the president of the National Assembly, Mr. Guaidó. The U.S. didn’t “anoint” him president, nor did he anoint himself; he is constitutionally obligated to accept the role for an interim period and organize a new election.
Dozens of democracies around the world have recognized Mr. Guaidó’s government, called for a new presidential election, or both. He has the backing of the Organization of American States, the Lima Group and the European Parliament.
Last week Mr. Guaidó named his own special representative to the OAS, whom OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro welcomed. The 35-year-old interim president has named new ambassadors to Washington, Ottawa, Santiago, Lima and at least seven other capitals.
New policies at the U.S. Treasury stop payments to the Maduro dictatorship from the U.S. for oil shipments from the state-owned oil company, PdVSA. Those payments will instead be set aside for use by the new government to rebuild Venezuela. Mr. Maduro can no longer access Venezuela’s quota at the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Guaidó has ordered new boards of directors at PdVSA and its U.S.-based affiliate, Citgo.
This is remarkable progress for a guy who has no office or staff and whose life arguably is in constant danger from Maduro thugs. But he has the law on his side, the moral high ground and the support of civilized nations.
Venezuela isn’t divided. It’s beyond absurd to suggest that Venezuelans need to compromise with thieving barbarians who ought to be on trial for crimes against humanity. Mr. Maduro should consider himself lucky if he gets out of Venezuela alive.
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