SANTIAGO — As tens of thousands of Venezuelans try to cross the borders into Colombia and Brazil to escape a country in ruins, a fraudulent legislative power opted to forward the country's presidential elections to April 22 and a shoddy judiciary barred the candidacies of opposition leaders. All the while, Venezuela continues to enjoy the backing of Bolivia and Cuba. And here in Chile, the government invited President Nicolás Maduro to next month's presidential transfer ceremony.

The slow-motion tragedy destroying Venezuela could have been avoided if Latin American governments and the world had had the courage to isolate the illegitimate Venezuelan president in 2015, when he took control of the judiciary, or in 2017 when he sidelined the democratically elected parliament to replace it with a puppet assembly.

It's still not too late, but on April 22 it will be.

Britain's The Economist reports that only 25% of Venezuelans support Maduro. And yet, he's likely to win the election because he has disqualified his two biggest rivals: Leopoldo López, who is under house arrest; and Henrique Capriles, who has been banned from seeking public office.

Maduro knows that the opposition is divided over how to confront him, so he is actively encouraging them to field candidates. As a coalition, the opposition's Table of Democratic Unity (which goes by the acronym MUD in Spanish) is considering not taking part in the vote. Participating in the process, they reason would legitimize it. But there's nothing stopping MUD's individual member parties from presenting candidates.

Some of the names being considered are Henri Falcón, a former governor of the state of Lara; Henry Ramos Allup, head of the aging Democratic Action party; and, as a possible consensus candidate, Lorenzo Mendoza, a business executive who leads the food and beverage corporation Empresas Polar. But even if opponents manage to unite around a name, that person will have just 17 days to campaign — from April 2-19, as dictated by the government-imposed rules.

The result of the pseudo-election will be a victory for Maduro, who will thus stay on until 2022. A poll taken in January by consultants Meganálisis showed that barely 29% of Venezuelans want to vote now. Why? Because it "won't make a difference," respondents said.

The economy, in the meantime, continues to tank, and food, medicine, and fuel are scarce. The IMF expects inflation to reach 13,000% this year, and Venezuelans can only withdraw 10,000 bolivars a day — approximately $0.04 — from ATMs. Street protests and calls for insurrection have been silenced with guns. Three million Venezuelans or 10% of the population have fled the country, and the numbers amassed on the Colombian border have forced that country to restrict migration. Brazil is considering a similar move, as Venezuela's crisis becomes a refugee crisis.

Photo: Boris Vergara/ZUMA

Time to take a stand

The Lima Group of 14 Latin American states made the right decision a few days back to rescind its invitation to Maduro for the Eighth Summit of the Americas to be held in the Peruvian capital on April 13 and 14. Our outgoing leader, Michelle Bachelet, should do the same regarding the event on March 11, when she steps down and Sebastián Piñera takes over as Chile's head of state.

The Lima Group's decision is a good one, but it's not enough. More political and diplomatic measures are needed, and governments throughout the region must impose economic and financial sanctions in concert.

América Economía has always opposed the U.S. embargo on Cuba. And until now, we chose not to support an oil embargo on Venezuela, fearing such a move would only add to the suffering people there are forced to endure. But today, oil revenues merely serve to consolidate Maduro's rule. He has used them to pay his debts and avoid a default rather than import food and medicine.

On his last Latin American tour, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threatened restrictions on Venezuelan oil imports. That's unlikely to happen. But what if Venezuela's customers cut imports gradually, steadily closing the tap in the run-up to April 22 as warning that the world will close the door on Maduro if he proceeds with his elections?

After last year's street protests, it's undeniable that Maduro has clung to power through force. He and his gang are not moved by ideals, and it would be ridiculous at this point to call them socialists. They are a criminal gang of soldiers and politicians who have taken over a state, corrupting and drugging its institutions. And the only way to oust them is through a combination of intense pressure, threats regarding their personal futures, and negotiations.

The measures that have put the most pressure on Maduro and his people are those taken by the United States and European Union, namely freezing their assets and forbidding entry to various members in Maduro's inner circle, like his deputy Diosdado Cabello. Latin America's democratic countries must take similar measures, draft a list of undesirable Maduro cronies who will not be allowed entry, and ensure they cannot buy assets or open accounts in their countries. They must multiply their efforts to isolate Maduro and his gang, and force them to negotiate their exit. The tragedy that Venezuelans are experiencing on a daily basis demands nothing less.