The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on U.S.- Venezuelan policy comes to a close.
By Deanna Mudry
The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has decided that the best way to help end corruption, poverty and violence in Venezuela, in the short-term, is to revoke its democratic charter under the Organization of American States (OAS), as people said direct action from the U.S. alone would likely face opposition.
Although nothing specific was voted upon, the senators and witnesses came to the consensus that this should be their main priority in U.S.-Venezuela relations going forward.
“Is that not the single most concrete thing that we can do in the short-term to provide the pressure necessary so that elections are allowed and the Venezuelan people can decide what government they want?” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., said. “I think we’re gonna get one thing, and I hope that’s what we can focus everybody on. I would love it to be a bipartisan committee consensus.”
All three witnesses at Thursday’s hearing agreed. The OAS is a regional organization made up of 35 states in North and South America, including the United States and Venezuela. It aims to promote peace and democracy among member states that have ratified its charter. However, Venezuela has been less than democratic in recent years.
Drug traffickers have been appointed to high government offices in Venezuela, and the country failed to hold regional elections in December 2016, according to Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tn. A recall referendum against sitting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was also recently denied, despite the majority opposition party gaining ten times more signatures than is required by the Venezuelan constitution to hold one. In addition, there are currently 117 Venezuelan people in jail for political dissent.
“Our government has no doubt about corruption and criminal activity in the Venezuelan government,” Corker said.
In 2015, President Obama declared Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security. He made sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials because of corruption and human rights violations and was met with criticism from many other OAS members. Today, there are over 140 Venezuelan officials barred from the U.S. because of visa sanctions.
The U.S.’s anti-Medura stance was further solidified this month when Lilian Tintori, a Venezuelan activist whose husband Leopoldo Lopez is a political prisoner in Venezuela, met with Rubio and President Trump at the White House.
“The president received her at the Oval Office and took a picture with her and put it up on Twitter which, for this president, it’s a pretty powerful thing,” Rubio said.
However, some committee members said they fear this stance is seen by Venezuelans as more pro-imperialist than pro-democratic. Sen. Tom Udall, D-Nm., didn’t vote in favor of past sanctions against Venezuela and said it’s more than likely they’ll be used as a scapegoat for dictators to further their reign.
“I thought then, and I believe now that they’re counterproductive and lead to the further entrenchment of the current Venezuelan regime, and that’s exactly what happened,” Udall said. “The Venezuelan people who oppose the government are suffering.
Dr. David Smilde, a professor of social relations at Tulane University and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that whether the U.S. acts or not, the Venezuelan government will create its own fodder against the U.S.
“They’re going to invent things,” he said. “They’re very good with fake news, they’re good with alternative facts, and the fact is it doesn’t work for them. 89 percent of the people in Venezuela reject the government.”
In addition to political corruption, Venezuela has the highest inflation and murder rates in the world, according to Dr. Shannon O’Neil, a Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America and the director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Program. Many people are currently unable to access food and medicine, and if there’s further economic deterioration and increased violence in the country, O’Neil said she sees hundreds of thousands of refugees potentially fleeing to their Latin American neighbors as well as the U.S.
“The humanitarian situation is dire,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-Nj., said. “Children are dying of completely preventable diseases. Shelves are empty of basic food and medicine. It’s past time for not only the democratic charter to have been called into play, but to actually put into action.”
A Fragile Solution
Although invoking Venezuela’s violation of OAS charter provisions was deemed by witnesses and senators as the best short-term solution for the country’s problems, doubt remains as to whether or not it would be realistic.
Rubio questioned how the OAS could even enter the country, as humanitarian groups like USAID have been stopped from entering Venezuela under the pretense that there’s no emergency there. Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., added that many organizations will be hesitant to reform Venezuela unless change happens at the top.
“With a corrupt government it is going to be very difficult to see international organizations willing to come in and help finance their economy even though they have wealth,” Cardin said. “It can be difficult to figure out how that takes place unless they have basic changes in the way that they’re government’s doing business and we don’t have any indication that that’s taking place.”
Despite this, O’Neil said she believes there’s a good chance that Latin American countries will join in the U.S. in sanctions, citing newly elected leaders in Peru and Argentina, as well as a memorandum condemning the limited political freedom in Venezuela signed by Mexico and Columbia. But this will only happen if the U.S. takes time to build a democratic coalition with them. Many countries view the U.S. as unreliable partner after it has turned its back on Mexico, one of its closest allies, within the past few months.
“There’s the challenge there,” O’Neil said. “Do you step up and introduce sanctions or agree to sanctions when you’re worried about whether the United States might turn the next day?”
In addition, Mexico’s leftist party, which supports the Medura regime, has gained popularity recently because of the United States’ negative rhetoric toward the country, O’Neil said. If they come to power in the 2018 elections, it will only become more difficult for the U.S. to cooperate with the U.S. on sanctions against Venezuela.
Ultimately, the committee decided that they will look into sanctions and the freezing of assets as ways to fight against Venezuela’s problems in the future, while concentrating on the OAS charter as their most immediate and viable means for change right now.
However, Mark Feierstein of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that unless the U.S. changes its foreign policy south of the border, diplomatic decisions made in the region will be out of its control.
“The administration’s alienation of some of our closest allies, including Mexico, has undermined our ability to organize international efforts on Venezuela,” Feierstein said. “There are steps that the Trump administration should take to have a positive impact in Venezuela, but unless the president alters his posture both domestically and internationally, the United States will sideline itself diplomatically.”
Source: Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing “Venezuela: Options for U.S. Policy,” SD-419, 2/2/2017, Senator Corker presiding.