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We have a duty to stop Venezuela’s nightmare

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French author, philosopher and activist.

Venezuela, which sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves, was once one of Latin America's most prosperous countries. Though it was hardly a paragon of democracy, it did make strides toward building solid institutions.

Then, in 1999, former tank commander Hugo Chavez came to power. And before his death in 2013, he selected his successor: Nicolas Maduro, a sorry, bloodthirsty Chavez clone, who assumed the presidency after a bogus election and has ruled the country ever since.

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Today, the world watches as the Venezuelan dream becomes a nightmare, as a mix of incompetence and stupidity brings everything – the political system, the economy and society – crashing down. It watches as Venezuela is carved up by a "Bolivarian" oligarchy that is beholden to a Cuba that has itself been bled dry, and no longer believes in its own political model. It watches as Mr. Maduro appropriates revenues from the national oil company to finance his clientelism, and to top off opaque funds that are managed without oversight by his regime's satraps.

Under Mr. Maduro, Venezuela has joined the pack of countries headed for mass poverty. Its rate of inflation, to cite just one indicator, now rivals that of Zimbabwe in the 2000s or Weimar Germany in the 1920s. One is reminded of Cockaigne, that mythical land where gold – the yellow oil – flows freely, or of El Dorado, that lost city of gold visited by Candide. But the myth of El Dorado – as recounted by Luis Sepulveda, Alejo Carpentier, and others – never ends well.

Venezuela – its own kind of El Dorado – will pay a heavy price once Mr. Maduro has drained it dry. Already, it faces escalating violence that has brought it to the brink of civil war. In just the past few weeks, 124 protestors have died. Opposition figures have been persecuted, dismissed, kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured in police stations and jails. Adding insult to injury, an electoral farce recently handed Mr. Maduro a deconstituent assembly with the power to dismantle the country's fragile institutional balance.

In the face of this disaster, the international community has at least two reasons to take an interest in Venezuela's plight. The first is the "responsibility to protect," as spelled out in the Charter of the United Nations. UN member states should uphold this principle by sending a strong signal to Mr. Maduro's government to end the current violence.

To that end, the Security Council needs to muster the courage to issue a clear statement of condemnation against the regime. Venezuelan opposition leaders who still enjoy freedom of movement in Paris, Madrid and Washington should be extended official welcomes. French, Spanish and American foreign ministries should express their solidarity with the Venezuelan legislature, which Mr. Maduro's coup by constituent assembly threatens to dissolve. And, of course, the toothless warnings from the South American trading bloc, Mercosur, and U.S. President Donald Trump's timid sabre-rattling should be replaced with stronger economic and financial sanctions.

Second, the situation in Venezuela should concern all countries that have an interest in the fight against terrorism and the money-laundering networks that finance it. After all, what purpose was served by the "Bolivarian alliance" between Mr. Chavez and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? And where have the members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia gone? Just before his death, the FARC leader Ivan Rios told me that many FARC militants had been sent "on a mission" to the country of "21st-century socialism."

More recently, certain leaders of the anti-Chavista opposition – now exiled to the wilderness, for the time being – have alleged that Mr. Maduro's regime has deep ties to North Korea, Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and the freelancing militant group Hezbollah. Should we put stock in these claims?

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These are all questions that must be asked – and answered. We know from past experience that no act is too depraved for a desperate regime. At a minimum, Venezuela's slow-motion coup d'état warrants commissions of inquiry in the spirit of the Russell international war crimes tribunal, and greater interest from the Western media – not the embarrassed silence with which the international community has responded so far.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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