With popular demonstrations across Venezuela turning into the latest crisis for chavismo, it is time to pronounce the Obama administration’s policy toward Venezuela an unmitigated failure. The capstone was Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s absurd call this weekend for negotiations with the United States even as his government was cracking down on unarmed protestors.
Of course it was meant as a diversion, but for the embattled Maduro even to pretend he can blow the dog whistle and the State Department will fall immediately into line reveals his utter contempt for the administration’s accommodationist policy towards his country. We need an entirely new approach.
Almost one year after the death of strongman Hugo Chávez, the movement he founded is reeling. Nationwide protests against rampant street crime, shortages of basic consumer goods, and political polarization have left half a dozen Venezuelans dead, many more wounded, and even more jailed. Leading opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez has been imprisoned on a military base under the preposterous charge of training "gangs of youth" to lead a coup against the government.
The instability in the streets was entirely predictable; Venezuela under chavismo has been the longest train wreck in history. Yet, all the signs that the country has been headed for a meltdown have been studiously ignored by the Obama administration. Instead, it has bent over backwards to avoid any confrontation with the Maduro government, even as it became more repressive and grew closer to U.S. adversaries Iran and Cuba.
Just two months ago, despite the spiraling conditions in Venezuela, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Miami Herald that he was prepared to restart bilateral talks with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua proposed last June. Those talks never got off the ground after Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats, including the chargé (the U.S. has no ambassador in Caracas), who he accused of trying to destabilize his government. (Three more U.S. diplomats were expelled last week; after a decade of expulsions, it is a wonder there are any left to expel.)
Undaunted, Secretary Kerry told the Herald, "We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship [with Venezuela]," and that, "we’ve been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don’t think really exist." For good measure, he added, "The United States has not been involved in one (single) effort to deal negatively with the Maduro government."
And the result has been…? A defiant Maduro threatening to impose martial law and release "all of the military force of the country" against the opposition.
From the administration’s standpoint, no doubt their goal all along was to keep a low profile so as not to play the foil for the Maduro government and otherwise overshadow the democratic opposition’s grievances. Additionally, they may have thought that at a less active U.S. approach would allow regional heavyweights such as Brazil to play the moderating role. The result has been failure: Maduro still calls the opposition lackeys of Washington, mocks U.S. diplomatic entreaties, and no other regional country has stepped up to help resolve the crisis.
There is a vacuum of leadership in Washington on Venezuela and Congress needs to fill it. It is time for a more pro-active role in U.S. policy in support of the Venezuelan people. Indeed, there is no shortage of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who are not confused on the issue and what is important to U.S. interests. Not only do Venezuelans demonstrating in the street need to know that they have support and solidarity from abroad – bring some to Washington to testify – but Congress also has the power to levy sanctions should the Maduro government continue to assault and persecute its critics. Now is not the time for policy nuance and misdirection; it is time for bold action that finally holds the Venezuelan government accountable for its abuses and lawlessness.