By: Antoinette D’Addario
On Thursday March 2, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations met to discuss the failing state of Venezuela under current dictator, Nicolás Maduro. The committee, chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., heard testimony from witnesses and discussed what actions the United States should take in coming months to aid the South American nation.
In his opening statement, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, called the situation a “man-made calamity.”
“It’s a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis, with broken down hospitals, people starving in the streets [and] an economy that’s in shambles. This is a failing state, make no mistake about it,” he said.
Cardin went on to accuse the Venezuelan government of corruption, particularly by profiting from the nation’s oil well while people are starving. He encouraged bipartisan legislature be authorized for humanitarian aid in Venezuela and the engagement of regional partners.
The first witness to testify was Dr. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Venezuelans are suffering from a government that has radically mismanaged their economy and society and is blocking all democratic and constitutional efforts at change,” he said. However, he believes there is hope if bilateral and multi-lateral diplomacy methods are used.
The second witness was Mark Feierstein who works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He cited the exodus of Venezuelans to ill-prepared neighboring nations and political prisoners who are held without charges. He suggested the only way to affect permanent change is from inside Venezuela, external powers cannot impose policies. Feierstein encouraged the Trump administration to “continue Obama policies and charters on Venezuela, including voting and political pressures.” Yet he finds the Trump administration poorly positioned to affect these changes, and unless Trump changes his position, the United States will sideline itself from these conversations.
The final witness to testify was Dr. Shannon O’Neil, a Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies. She claimed Venezuela is in an unprecedented crisis, with a majority of its population in penury and their democracy has fallen to authoritarianism. O’Neil discouraged unilateral measures by the United States and encouraged it to use the Organization of American States (OAS) as a venue to focus efforts. She advocated for the OAS to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela to return democracy. O’Neil warned the dissolution of the Maduro regime will lead to chaos in Venezuela, particularly a wave of refugees. She supports aiding neighboring nations with money and supplies and helping Venezuela restructure their failing economy by renegotiating their $140 billion debt.
“Venezuela’s fate matters for the United States as it affects economics, security and democracy in the Western Hemisphere,” O’Neil said.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. queried the witnesses as to the potential ability of terrorist organizations to infiltrate Venezuela and pose a security threat to the United States. Dr. Smilde said there is no substance to rumors of terrorists entering and setting up shop in Venezuela.
Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-N.J., stated it is “past time for the democratic charter to be called into play, but to actually be put into action. If Venezuela is not a place where the democratic charter is going to be invoked and actually pursued by the countries of the hemisphere, the charter is really of no consequence.”
“If opposition is able to mobilize internally if we’re able to apply additional sanctions and ideally to multilateralize them and if we’re able to mobilize actors in the OAS to invoke the charter and threaten the suspension of Venezuela from the OAS, I think then there would be greater prospects for a positive outcome in Venezuela,” Feierstein responded.
Multilateral solutions became a theme of the meeting, with all three witnesses arguing that unilateral actions would have little effect on Venezuela.
Menéndez questioned the witnesses about the recent deal made by Rosneft and PDVSA, a Venezuelan petroleum company, which also owns Citgo. The deal put PDVSA’s stock up as collateral; should it default on its payments, Rosneft would gain 49.9 percent of Citgo and could possibly purchase Citgo bonds from the open market. This could give it majority stake in Citgo and put it in charge of US energy infrastructure. The economic committee “should be proactive and begin to investigate this,” Dr. O’Neil argued.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who voted against greater sanctions towards Venezuela, asked if greater US sanctions could lead to “Cubanization” of the Venezuelan problem. Dr. Smilde replied the situations in the two nations are different, as Venezuela has a greater history of democracy and the sanctions in Venezuela have been more targeted than they were in Cuba. “I don’t think sanctions are going to be effective and facilitate a democratic transition. What I do think would be effective is the region comes together, if there’s coordinated efforts among these regional partners and multilateral agencies and they come together with some sort of similar criteria,” said Smilde.
“Does the policy of the new administration; does that have any impact on our ability to move other partners in the region to try and help address what is happening in Venezuela?” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked.
Feierstein responded it is having a negative impact and Mexico is an important player in the region, and the new administration’s position has revived the north/south dynamic that has been absent for decades. “Overall the extent to which we are offending allies is going to cut into our ability to intervene, not only in Venezuela but more broadly as well,” he said.
Sen. Shaheen also asked what American leadership on Venezuela would look like. Dr. O’Neil said it would be “most effective if it’s other countries that are leading out front,” allowing neighboring nations to help Venezuela with minimal intrusion by the United States.
As the meeting was wrapping up, Sen. Rubio, R-Fla., took a moment to characterize the Venezuelan situation and opposition.
“This is not a civil war, it’s not Syria. The opposition we’re talking about happens to be the majority party in the national assembly. That’s what we’re talking about… The opposition is not a guerrilla group who is armed out in the mountains attacking the troops. These are elected individuals, the majority,” he said.
His asked witnesses if the main goal to focus on is the OAS invoking the charter on Venezuela, to which all witness agreed.
In his final remarks, Sen. Cardin stated the United States, and other countries in the region “need to engage, [they] don’t need to isolate.”
“It would be quite a breakthrough in these countries if Venezuela would return to a full democracy,” Sen. Corker concluded.