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Favoring 'Stability' Over Liberty in Venezuela

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

U.S. policy toward Venezuela is not only unjust, it’s foolish.

Havana and Washington are on opposite sides of virtually every foreign policy issue — be it Iran, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, terrorism, or even the destiny of the Western Sahara. The one place on the planet where the United States and Cuba appear to have found common ground is in Venezuela, where both favor a farcical “national dialogue” to end a popular uprising against the incompetent and criminal regime of Nicolás Maduro.

When members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee question the Obama administration’s Latin America policymaker, assistant secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, on Thursday morning, they might ask why it is in the U.S. interest to help a hostile, leftist regime crush democratic protests, and what we should do now as that strategy fails.

Beginning in early February, university students took to the streets of key Venezuelan cities to protest rampant street crime and the scarcity of basic goods. The regime’s response was brutal and disproportionate, with government-armed street gangs beating and shooting peaceful protesters. More than 40 people have been killed, and leading opposition figures have been jailed or removed from office on trumped-up charges, leading the nation’s Catholic bishops to denounce the regime’s “totalitarian” tendencies. The government’s violent tactics against the students in turn drew millions more to marches and barricades. Although massive protests have receded, the student movement continues to challenge the regime.

Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on May 5 citing evidence of serious and systematic abuses by Venezuelan security forces, including extrajudicial killings, torture, inhuman treatment, and unlawful detention.

Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on May 5 citing evidence of serious and systematic abuses by Venezuelan security forces, including extrajudicial killings, torture, inhuman treatment, and unlawful detention.

Rather than side with Venezuelans from across the political spectrum struggling to save their country and defend their rights, U.S. diplomats coaxed the opposition into talks that were supposed to address their grievances. On April 10, one prominent opposition group agreed to participate in a “dialogue” sponsored by South American governments sympathetic to Maduro. However, the student movement and other key opposition figures reject the dialogue as long as the government holds political prisoners and uses pro-regime street gangs to terrorize the country.

Even as this dialogue continues, however, Maduro’s regime is threatening opposition leaders and waging a war of attrition against protesters. The Supreme Court has banned public rallies, effectively criminalizing dissent; the regime has even begun to detain very young protesters and ransom them back to their families. In one recent notorious case, university student Betania Farrera, 22 years old and pregnant, was detained on April 26 during a demonstration in the Santa Fe community of Caracas; she was tried and summarily sentenced to six years in prison. On Monday evening, gang members pursued students to their university in the city of Barquisimeto and, with national guardsmen looking on, burned most of its buildings to the ground. According to eyewitnesses, a 15-year-old male student was shot in the chest by the pro-regime gangsters who attacked the campus.

A more responsible leader might have used a genuine dialogue to stop his country’s slide into an abyss. Instead, Maduro is exploiting the process to buy time for his beleaguered regime. Merely by sitting down with the opposition, he has diminished international pressure on the government. He also hopes to restock empty store shelves to rectify the shortages that have damaged his standing among the very poor.

The Supreme Court has banned public rallies, effectively criminalizing dissent.

The problem for Maduro is that his regime does not have the cash it needs to head off an economic meltdown. The government’s own reports show that despite its vast oil wealth, Venezuela’s economic growth has ground to a halt. Inflation is galloping past 56 percent, scarcity of basic goods is at nearly 30 percent, and international reserves have plummeted 25 percent in the last year. Maduro forgets that the economy managed to tread water for the past two years only due to $40 billion in loans from China. That money has been exhausted and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Caracas last month and left without extending additional loans.

Maduro’s political woes are insurmountable as well. Since his election just over a year ago, the percentage of Venezuelans associating themselves with the ruling Socialist party has dropped from 40 percent to 25 percent, according to a poll conducted by the firm Datanalisis. That survey found that 72 percent blames Maduro or his government for the country’s woes, with 65 percent expressing “little or no confidence” that the current regime can solve these problems.

In short, an undemocratic regime known for its hostility to the United States, its complicity in narcotrafficking, and its affinity for Iran and Hezbollah has its back against the wall. Enter the U.S. State Department, which has refused to apply sanctions against Venezuelan human rights violators, as advocated by a bipartisan group in the U.S. Congress led by Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida). According to congressional staff members who have consulted the administration, U.S. diplomats fret that such sanctions would undermine the dialogue — as if freezing the assets or revoking the U.S. visas of human rights violators would do more damage than shooting students and torching their campus. But that is what passes for U.S. foreign policy these days.

In the Cold War era, the United States was sometimes faulted for choosing stability over democracy or favoring a repressive regime over the popular will. Then, a cynical policy might have served U.S. interests. Today, U.S. policy toward Venezuela is not only unjust, it’s foolish.

Roger F. Noriega was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the administration of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His firm, Vision Americas, represents U.S. and foreign clients.

FURTHER READING: Noriega also writes "The OAS is AWOL on Venezuela" and "Latins Rally to Restore Human Rights Panel."

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group.

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