Venezuela Opposition Protest

A girl helps wave a giant Venezuelan flag during a protest against the upcoming presidential election in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Venezuela's main opposition coalition is denouncing what it considers an attempt by President Nicolas Maduro to commit electoral fraud in the May 20 presidential election, which it is boycotting. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Ariana Cubillos

It’s already clear who will win Venezuela’s snap presidential election Sunday. President Nicolas Maduro is running for another term virtually unopposed. Even if he had serious competition, he and his socialist allies control the electoral commission and virtually every other arm of government.

It’s not a fair contest. And the United States must not treat it as such.

Over the past few months, Mr. Maduro has dispensed with the remaining few shreds of Venezuela’s democracy. He unseated the opposition-controlled legislature in a move to rewrite the nation’s constitution. He rigged gubernatorial elections. He ousted the national attorney general.

Now, in a desperate attempt to bolster his legitimacy, he is holding an early presidential election. A coalition of opposition parties chose not to field a candidate in protest of what they assure will be a rigged vote anyway.

But Mr. Maduro is not popular. And it’s not hard to see why.

Venezuela is starving. A large majority of the country’s population reported losing weight last year due to a lack of access to food. Supermarket shelves are empty. There are long lines for basic household goods and medicines.

Protests over the past several months have left dozens dead. Murder rates are among the highest in the world. Petty crime is rampant.

The economy faces the world’s steepest inflation rate, rendering money all but useless. Millions of Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia or Brazil. Some with the resources to travel have come to the United States.

Mr. Maduro must tighten his grip to maintain his increasingly tenuous grasp on power. A win on Sunday, however, won’t do much to improve his image in the eyes of desperate, hungry Venezuelans.

But President Donald Trump must carefully weigh imposing sweeping, crippling sanctions on Venezuela in response to the sham election. Broad measures, like an embargo on Venezuelan oil, risk helping Mr. Maduro while punishing the most impoverished Venezuelans in the process.

That’s because Mr. Maduro, like his predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, tends to blame the United States for his country’s economic woes. It’s a preposterous claim, of course. Failed socialist leadership and low oil prices are the real problems.

But strict sanctions give Mr. Maduro and his cronies the ability to more convincingly make the case that the United States is the enemy — rather than the Venezuelan leadership’s greed, corruption and incompetence.

Mr. Trump should not fall into that trap.

Neither, however, should he stand by and allow Mr. Maduro to claim a political victory. The United States must not recognize Mr. Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela until a legitimate election is held.

Until then, he should be called what he truly is — a dictator.