Diversity of Interests Shapes US Venezuela Policy

Timothy Gill 

In recent weeks, several US policymakers have advocated for actions involving the Venezuelan government, showing the diversity of US interests and perspectives.

While the US Department of State Spokesperson Marie Harf criticized the Venezuelan government’s handling of the prosecution of individuals involved with protests that developed in February, US Charge D’Affaires in Venezuela Lee McClenny privately met with former Foreign Minister Elias Jaua to discuss issues of mutual importance and plan more substantial meetings with Venezuelan leaders in the future. Within the US Senate, on the other hand, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-FL) to allow a vote on legislation that would place further sanctions on Venezuelan officials.

On September 11, Harf released a press statement declaring that the US is “deeply concerned by the lack of due process or fair trial guarantees for persons detained in relation to protests in Venezuela.” In the statement, Harf draws specific attention to the cases brought against Leopoldo López, Enzo Scarano, and Daniel Ceballos and asserts that the “Venezuelan Government has an obligation to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed by international law … [including] inform[ing] all persons detained of any charges against them and to either release them or guarantee them a fair and public trial before an independent and impartial tribunal without undue delay.”

On September 12, the Ministry of Popular Power for Foreign Relations responded with a statement calling Harf’s statement “an unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of our country reflecting an attitude of sustained aggression against the Venezuelan people.”

The statement asserts that while the Venezuelan government respects human rights as they are enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution, the US “systematically violates the human rights of its people and the people of the world … [including] violence against immigrants, against thousands of Central American children, discrimination against minorities of African descent, unpunished crimes by those in power, as in the case of the young Michael Brown, racism, the open practice of kidnapping and torture, as flagrantly occurs in the torture centers of Guantanamo, and other North American military installations around the world; and support for terrorism, bombings, and military attacks in other countries.”

 

In the weeks before Harf’s statements, the US showed a willingness to reinitiate high-level meetings with their Venezuelan counterparts. In their August 28 meeting, McClenny and Jaua worked to foster government dialogue regarding diplomatic and economic issues. Although the two did not publicly discuss the specificities of the meetings, statements from other officials indicate areas of mutual interest.

On September 2, Roy Daza, the Vice-President of Venezuelan chapter of the Latin American Parliament, stated that “on the part of Venezuela, there is a clear disposition towards normalization” of the relationship and that he believes that US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry also share the sentiment. And on former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel’s weekly television program, Daza also indicated that both sides are taking steps to allow for a potential visit from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which has not been allowed in the country since 2005.

William Brownfield, the US Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and former Ambassador to Venezuela, also discussed the issue of the DEA in Venezuela on September 10, stating that the rupture between the DEA and Venezuela has provided an opportunity for narco-traffickers to operate out of Venezuela.

In the Senate, however, Senator Rubio has asked Senator Reid to place the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 on this month’s legislative agenda. The bill would require President Obama to place sanctions, including asset blocking and the revocation of visas, on a range of Venezuelan officials. While the bill has already successfully passed through the House of Representatives, it has yet to come to the Senate floor.

In his letter, Senator Rubio asserts that “corruption, incompetence, and malicious negligence of Nicolas Maduro’s government have left Venezuela on the verge of collapse, with a dangerous scarcity of food and goods, soaring crime and murder rates, and virtually nonexistent economic opportunity.” He argues that the “government is striking out more frantically every day, working to beat [the opposition] into submission, to tear at the very fabric of their nation.”

Senator Reid himself has voiced support for the bill, but several senators have blocked the first several attempts to get it to the Senate floor. In the spring Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) stalled a vote on the bill due to his support for ongoing negotiations between the government and the opposition, but he backed off this position after the Venezuelan government secured the freedom of General Hugo Carvajal, who has allegedly assisted drug-traffickers with drug shipments, from detention in Aruba.

More recently, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) stalled a vote on the bill, due to economic concerns involving local employment at Citgo refining facilities in Louisiana. She has stated that she is “very concerned that Senator Rubio’s bill would endanger 2,000 full time and contract workers at the Citgo oil refinery in Lake Charles. Once a simple sentence that protects these hard working Louisianians is added to the bill, I will be happy to support the legislation.”

Much of the Senate debate has to do with Rubio and Landrieu’s bids for reelection in November. Rubio seeks to appeal to the growing Venezuelan population in Florida and demonstrate his foreign policy credentials. Landrieu is putting jobs at the center of her campaign and her stance provides an opportunity to publicly demonstrate this as a core commitment.

The US State Department has already imposed several sets of sanctions on Venezuelan government officials and Venezuelan government companies in recent years.

In July 2014, the US State Department placed travel bans on 24 unnamed Venezuelan officials. In February 2013, the US State Department placed nonproliferation sanctions the Venezuelan Military Industry Company for trading with either Iran, North Korea, and/or Syria, and, in May 2011, they sanctioned PDVSA for sending fuel shipments to Iran.