Sometimes it's the little things that mean the most. When Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, facing swelling protests against his own rule, sent congratulations to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Syria's independence day, it was a gesture his fellow tyrant surely appreciated.
So far Maduro has deployed only tear gas and (mostly) rubber bullets against protesters. Yet his recent decision to arm and mobilize a half-million-strong citizen militia to prevent a "coup" points to the risks of greater violence. As Venezuela's neighbors and the world punish its government for repression, Venezuela's opposition must come up with a realistic platform for achieving political and economic change.
Some 20 people have been killed in violence and demonstrations since April 1, dozens more have been injured, and hundreds detained. The catalog of woes that has brought more than a million Venezuelans into the streets includes ugly shortages of food, basic goods and medicine, stratospheric rates of crime and inflation, and stiffening coercion and censorship. Expropriation of farmland and factories has fattened the well-connected and impoverished those it was supposed to help. Continuing its slide, the economy is expected to shrink by 7 percent this year. Mismanagement has turned the holder of the world's biggest oil reserves into a gasoline importer.
Given Maduro's dismal record, the quickest way to deliver Venezuela from misery would be for him and his vice president -- who was just sanctioned by the U.S. for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking -- to resign, and to speed up the timing of the 2018 presidential elections. That outcome, however, is unlikely. In Venezuela's overheated political climate, it could also cloud the legitimacy of any government to follow.
At the same time, Maduro's renewed offer of "dialogue" deserves a gimlet eye. He has used such tactics before to split the opposition while stonewalling its demands. Moreover, his declared willingness to hold already overdue regional elections is laughable. Of course they should be held -- just as opposition leaders should be released from prison and allowed to run for office, and the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly restored. These are the prerequisites of a working democracy, not concessions to be made by a magnanimous autocrat.
To restore them, pressure from the streets must be supported by pressure from Venezuela's neighbors. They, and groups such as the Organization of American States and the United Nations, must make clear to Maduro's government that there will be real costs for its failure to uphold democratic standards -- membership in the Mercosur trading bloc, for instance. Conversely, Venezuelans should know that if they return to the democratic fold, the international community will help them to recover stability and growth.
For that to happen, Venezuela's often divided opposition needs to put forward a compelling vision. Chavismo's still-considerable adherents will have to be wooed, and the country re-united around shared concerns, whether reviving the oil industry or fighting organized crime. To truly succeed, protest marches have to lead someplace people really want to go.