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Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and the band of criminals who call the shots in that country on Thursday smothered any hope for a constitutional, democratic recall that would have allowed voters to replace his repressive and hapless regime. The country’s democratic voices now are rallying the people to confront Maduro, who is incapable of resolving food shortages and rampant crime wrought by nearly 20 years of abusive rule.

Until now, President Obama has opted for “stability” — opposed to any upheaval even at the cost of keeping Maduro in power. The anti-democratic steps taken in recent weeks make clear, however, that U.S. diplomacy can either save Maduro or save Venezuela. It can’t do both.

Since Maduro’s Socialist Party lost national legislative elections in a landslide a year ago, he has wielded executive and judicial authority to defy the popular vote that gave the democratic opposition a two-thirds super-majority. Suspect judicial rulings by a supreme court packed with PSUV cronies have nullified virtually every act of the National Assembly. In recent weeks the president and the court defunded the Assembly’s operations and usurped its authority to approve the national budget. Maduro — whose government blocked key opposition leaders from seeking assembly seats and jailed prominent political opponents — has threatened to prosecute the Assembly’s leadership on bogus charges.

For months, the opposition has run a procedural obstacle course to invoke a provision of the constitution to allow citizens to convene a recall referendum to oust Maduro and trigger a snap election to choose a successor. According to recent polls, no less than [RN1] of Venezuelans would vote to oust Maduro; a peaceful march on Caracas backing the recall brought more than a million people to the streets.

Until recently, the Maduro-controlled electoral board pledged to facilitate a referendum, while placing bureaucratic hurdles to delay the process. On Thursday, PSUV authorities voided the initial signature drive, dashing the hopes for an electoral solution to the worsening crisis. This decision buys Maduro some time, but it also means that the inevitable collapse and confrontation will be more devastating.

[RN2] Notwithstanding the courageous efforts of Venezuelan citizens to demand their rights and save their country, the regime holds most of the cards.

Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has been trying to rally the region to deal with the crisis, not by ousting or sanctioning Venezuela, but by holding the government accountable to its commitments to respect democracy and human rights. On Friday, he said the time had come for “concrete actions” by the Venezuelan people and the international community.

Thomas Shannon, under secretary of state for political affairs, appears to have instructions to head off a crisis in Venezuela on Obama’s watch. Rather than confronting the regime, Shannon has encouraged an ill-conceived dialogue between Maduro and his victims. By killing the referendum outright, the regime is wagering that Obama’s do-nothing strategy will not change. However, what career diplomat wants to explain to the next U.S. president the decision to punt this catastrophe to Obama’s successor?

This next week will be critical: Will the people take to the streets to demand a change in government? Will the military side with the constitution or criminals? Will regional governments — especially those under new democratic presidents in Argentina, Brazil and Peru — stand up to reject a new dictatorship in Venezuela? Will the United States adopt a new strategy, now that averting a meltdown appears increasingly impossible?

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In addition to backing OAS action, the Obama administration can target the criminal henchmen who have dictated a crackdown on democracy because they fear that a transition will land them in jail. The president should instruct the Treasury Department to expose and freeze the assets of regime leaders involved in drug trafficking, theft of state resources, and money laundering. The criminal activities of former National Assembly Diosdado Cabello and Aragua state governor Tareck El-Aissami have been denounced publicly for more than a year.

Finally, Venezuela’s military leadership must be warned not to use force to deny people their constitutional rights. If they do their jobs, professionals in the security forces can help salvage a democratic and prosperous Venezuela.

Increased support from the international community — including intelligent measures by the United States to put notorious kleptocrats in check — can help Venezuelans win peaceful change, prevent a bloody confrontation, and resolve a humanitarian crisis. It’s not too late to do the right thing.

Roger F. Noriega was U.S. Ambassador to the OAS and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2001-05. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and his firm Visión Américas LLC represents U.S. and foreign clients. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.

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