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Pulling Venezuela back from the brink

After making deals with Cuba and Iran, Obama may now be trying to negotiate a deal with Venezuela. With the country in dire crisis, this longtime US adversary needs the help.

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    People loot a supermarket in San Felix in the state of Bolivar, Venezuela July 31. Food shortages in Venezuela have intensified as the country's economic crisis deepens. During the looting at a supermarket on Friday, one man was shot dead, according to local media.
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In just the past few weeks, President Obama has opened official ties with Cuba and clinched a nuclear deal with Iran. Now Venezuela, another longtime US adversary, might be next in line for a bit of reconciliation with Washington.

Secretive negotiations between the two countries have picked up in recent months, perhaps reversing years of belligerency and estrangement. The talks have come none too soon. Venezuela’s economy is faltering fast, even more so than Greece’s, with mobs looting supermarkets, inflation reaching triple digits, and opposition figures like Leopoldo López being thrown in jail by President Nicolás Maduro. 

The rest of the world, especially other countries in Latin America, should be cheering on these talks. The country has experienced an average of 14 protests a day. A collapse of the Venezuelan economy or its government is in no one’s interest, especially its neighbors. 

With the world’s largest known oil reserves, Venezuela could eventually be a model for other countries in how to use its resources well, instead of being a sad lesson in corruption, personal rule, and economic mismanagement. 

In a speech this week, Mr. Obama defined his approach to adversaries like Venezuela with words from a previous US leader: 

“President Kennedy warned Americans not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than the exchange of threats.” Obama added that the United States, as the anchor of the international system, has a strong tradition of exhausting diplomacy.

The US has been rightly cautious in seeking rapprochement with the Maduro regime. It should not undercut the efforts of the country’s political opposition. It must welcome actions from others in Latin America. And it must first emphasize universal concerns, such as human rights violations and a humanitarian concern for the growing food crisis.

One outside and neutral body, the International Crisis Group, warns of an “accelerating deterioration” in Venezuela. “If not tackled decisively and soon, it will become a humanitarian disaster with a seismic impact on domestic politics and society, and on Venezuela’s neighbors,” ICG states in a July report. And 26 former heads of state in Latin America have signed an open letter about the “difficult social, economic and political situation” in Venezuela and called for the release of jailed political prisoners.

In recent weeks, at least two prisoners have been released and the government has agreed to hold parliamentary elections on Dec. 6. Both actions might be tied to the talks with the US. But the most urgent step is for the regime to allow the international community to monitor the elections without hindrance. A credible vote would begin to restore confidence in the country while contested elections might worsen it. 

Other countries can help Venezuelans reconcile with each other. That is why the talks with the US are so critical.  

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