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Andres Oppenheimer: Pressure Maduro, but in right way

| Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
In this Oct. 17, 2017, file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at the Miraflores presidential palace, in Caracas, Venezuela. Maduro said Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, that his socialist government will begin restructuring a foreign debt estimated at more than $120 billion, saying U.S. financial sanctions are crippling the oil-dependent economy’s ability to pay. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)
In this Oct. 17, 2017, file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at the Miraflores presidential palace, in Caracas, Venezuela. Maduro said Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, that his socialist government will begin restructuring a foreign debt estimated at more than $120 billion, saying U.S. financial sanctions are crippling the oil-dependent economy’s ability to pay. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

The Trump administration and European and Latin American countries are threatening to step up sanctions on Venezuela after last month's fraud-ridden gubernatorial elections. But they're doing it the wrong way, each one separately.

Many have believed that U.S. and European sanctions should be limited to sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his top aides. In other words, go after their hundreds of millions of dollars stashed in foreign banks and their properties in Miami or Madrid.

But what happened Oct. 15 was so outrageous that it is now clear that more international pressure will be needed to get Maduro to allow a free election.

Amid a collapsing economy with a 1,000-percent annual inflation rate and polls showing that 80 percent of people want Maduro to go, the president claimed his party had won 80 percent of the country's governorships.

In addition to its usual tricks — using massive resources to back government candidates, censoring independent media and buying votes through food-distribution programs — the Maduro regime physically prevented many people in opposition strongholds from casting votes and is likely to have tinkered with election results in closely disputed states.

In the 48 hours prior to the election, the regime-controlled National Election Council (CNE) abruptly announced it was changing the polling places for 700,000 voters. Many voters in opposition areas were sent to polling places in remote or dangerous neighborhoods, while others were not told where their new voting places would be.

Also at the last minute, the regime included on the ballots the names of opposition politicians who had been defeated in primary elections, which allowed the CNE to nullify at least 90,537 opposition votes.

It has now become clear that all avenues for an electoral solution to Venezuela's crisis have been temporarily closed. New, broader diplomatic and economic sanctions against Venezuela's ruling elite are needed to get Maduro to allow free elections in 2018 with independent electoral authorities and credible international observers.

But the problem is that President Donald Trump's administration, the European Union and Latin American countries don't have a common agenda with clearly identified demands to put pressure on the Maduro regime.

Trump has imposed financial sanctions on top Venezuelan officials and is cracking down on banks that buy Venezuela's oil-company bonds. Mexico, Colombia and Canada have vowed to impose similar steps. It's unclear whether Panama and Uruguay — two key offshore banking centers — have yet taken any such measures.

The European Union has threatened to impose its own economic sanctions. South America's MERCOSUR trade union has suspended Venezuela, and 12 Latin American countries demanded an “urgent” independent audit of the Oct. 15 elections.

But the lack of a multilateral strategy behind these sanctions diminishes their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, Trump is not in a good position to lead any international coalition to further isolate the Maduro regime. But he should try to do it. After the latest events, he may find growing support for a coordinated strategy to help restore democracy in Venezuela.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.

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