Just a decade ago, Venezuela was perhaps the most influential Latin American country in the Organization of American States (OAS), the world’s oldest regional cooperation group. At the time, many of Latin America’s left-leaning leaders had ideological affinities with Venezuela’s socialist government, which was riding an economic boom on the back of its vast oil reserves. Hugo Chávez, the country’s charismatic former president, pursued an aggressive kind of petrodiplomacy, winning over or buying the silence of Venezuela’s neighbors as his rule became increasingly authoritarian.
Today’s situation is dramatically different. Nicolás Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, presides over a broken nation of some 30 million people, most of whom are barely scraping by, desperate for food and medicine, fearful for their safety, and angered by their government’s erosion of democratic safeguards. On March 29, a Supreme Court ruling effectively closed down the opposition-dominated National Assembly, triggering massive street protests. Since then, more than 35 Venezuelans have been killed in violent clashes, many with government-backed militias—and there is no end in sight.
The Latin American governments that remained on the sidelines a decade ago now appear ready to take a stronger stand to prevent Venezuela from descending into deeper violence, state collapse, or a more repressive form of authoritarianism. Over the course of the last year, Venezuela was suspended from MERCOSUR, a regional trade bloc, and many Latin American officials—particularly in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru—began to forcefully criticize Maduro for the first time.