U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela: To What End?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Common Cause -Embassy of Venezuela DC / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Obama plans to sign the “Venezuela Defense of Democracy and Civil Society Act” into law, but its lack of clear objectives seems likely to muddle Washington’s desired outcome.  The bill, approved last week by voice vote in the Senate and House, calls for punishing Venezuelan government officials involved in human rights abuses, an authority the White House already has.  It includes national security waivers that allow the President final say on which officials will have their visas revoked – denying them entry into the United States – and have any U.S. assets they own frozen.  After initially voicing skepticism about the wisdom of such measures, the Obama administration came around to supporting them.  Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pushed the bill hard in May after episodes of violent suppression of anti-government street demonstrations painted a grim picture of the human rights situation.  The Venezuelan foreign ministry’s reaction to the legislation has been strident, and President Maduro said, “If the crazy path of sanctions is imposed, President Obama, I think you’re going to come out looking very bad.”

President Obama wasn’t alone in switching positions over the bill.  Senator Bob Corker, who’s expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress that begins next month, had embraced the State Department’s earlier view that sanctions would undermine international talks engineered by UNASUR and the Vatican.  The Caracas government’s refusal to make concessions in the talks undermined that argument, however, and a three-way diplomatic dustup between the U.S., Aruba, and Venezuela over another issue – Aruba’s refusal to extradite Venezuela’s designated ambassador, a former Venezuelan army official, to the United States on narco-trafficking charges – further frustrated Washington players.  Corker asserted that the incident showed that Venezuela’s “complicity with criminal activity” could not go unchecked since it directly undermined U.S. interests.  Immediately after the extradition episode, the Obama administration imposed unilateral sanctions – travel and visa bans – on a dozen unnamed Venezuelan officials, laying the groundwork for Menendez and Rubio to reintroduce their legislation and drive it home before Congress adjourned for the holidays.  Corker endorsed the bill, although he highlighted that a “regional dialogue” remained the best option for finding a “negotiated, democratic way forward” to address human rights issues.

Other than punishing reported human rights offenders and making an example of them the new bill is unclear on how it could help resolve the deep political crisis that has given rise to the protests and subsequent abuses.  With Maduros popularity plummeting to new lows, strident rhetoric condemning U.S. intervention could give him a modest boost by bolstering his claim that Washington is part of an economic war against Venezuela.  It is far too early to tell whether that nationalistic narrative will work in the governments favor as the countrys dire shortages have become permanent and economic suffering is increasingly blamed on Maduros policies and declining oil prices.  If human rights really are the U.S. top concern, Washington might want to be more sensitive to the positions of PROVEA and other Venezuelan human rights groups, which have denounced the legislation despite its inclusion of funding for Venezuelan civil society groups. If punishing rights abusers is Washingtons way of pressing for sustainable change in Venezuela, then it needs to state the case that penalizing measures imposed since 2008 have made a difference.  Another option, contained in Senator Corker’s observation about a “negotiated, democratic way forward,” could be to renew support for talks sponsored by South American countries, as these are more likely to reduce tensions, improve rights, and give moderates space to promote electoral solutions.

December 18, 2014

Little Promise of Progress on LA Issues in the U.S. Congress

U.S. Capitol Building / Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol / public domain

U.S. Capitol Building / Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol / public domain

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate appear likely to continue having diverse positions on elements of Latin America policy, but the parties are divided and the proposals – as has been said of the Obama Administration’s – appear piecemeal.  Neither the Democratic nor Republican Party is monolithic; both have diverse voices on the region – with strident internal differences registered on Cuba, Venezuela, the alleged role of Iran, and other contentious issues.  Congressional interest in Latin America tends to swirl around three interwoven areas:

  • On human rights, both parties have expressed concerns, but in very different contexts.  Conservatives continue to press the Administration to be tougher on Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and others.  Centrist and liberal-leaning members have urged reassessment of Washington’s position on human rights-related developments in Honduras and Mexico.
  • On security issues, there appears to be vague agreement to give priority to stemming transnational crime and promoting “citizen security” – and to programs that are spinoffs of Plan Colombia and the Iniciativa Mérida – but the Administration’s penchant for militaristic approaches and the concomitant need to cooperate with existing (and often corrupt) forces also draw considerable criticism.  Some members of Congress continue to insist that Iran is laying the groundwork for radical Islam and terrorism in Latin America, but the Administration, while remaining vigilant, has been reluctant to make that concern central to its programs.  Predictably, Congressmen close to former Colombian President Uribe oppose President Santos’s peace talks with the FARC.
  • The trade agenda is also contentious.  Both parties have advocates obsessed with securing trade accords as well as others who are skeptical or even hostile toward them.  With the “Free Trade Area of the Americas” vision of Presidents Bush (father) and Clinton long gone, some members continue to push for bilateral deals, but a three-region approach – linking Latin America, Asia, and the United States – seems to be gaining momentum.  Special deals under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Enforcement Act (ATPDEA) – already battered by ups and downs in U.S. bilateral relationships – have faded.

Issues like relations with Cuba and Venezuela perennially threaten the broader agenda on Latin America, and the intensity of rightwingers on those issues – including Cuban-American Senators Menendez (D‑NJ) and Rubio (R‑FL) and Representatives Ros-Lehtinen (R‑FL) and Albio Sires (D‑NJ) – tends to intimidate other members of the House and Senate.  Sen. Jeff Flake (R‑AZ) and Reps. Farr (D‑CA) and McGovern (D‑MA) have denounced the embargo, but the Committee chairs in both houses of Congress can block their legislation.  But other aspects of Latin America policy, especially on trade, may advance if the Administration pushes hard – or will wither if it does not.  The result will be a continued reliance on diverse security programs without a broader vision for Washington’s supposed partnership with the region.


Iran in Latin America: An Exaggerated Threat

By Aaron Bell

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Republican Mitt Romney referred to Russia as the United States’ number one geopolitical foe, but in the Latin American context he and his fellow conservatives have focused much more on another perceived competitor – Iran. Alongside China and the EU, Russia has indeed taken greater interest in Latin America in the past decade, investing in energy, selling military hardware, and even offering an alternative to Washington’s counternarcotics programs. But Romney and major elements of his party have given more attention to the newer, more enigmatic go-to threat of Iran and its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2012 Republican Party Platform warned that Venezuela had become “an Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere,” issuing visas to “thousands of Middle East terrorists” and providing a safe haven to “Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters, and fundraisers.” This past spring, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told a Congressional committee that Hezbollah was working alongside the Sinaloa Cartel to fund and organize terrorist activities. He claimed the organization had infiltrated the Venezuelan government so the Iranian government could launder money through Venezuelan banks to avoid international sanctions.

Relations between Iran and some members of ALBA expanded during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, during which he spent more time in Latin America than either Presidents Bush or Obama. He shared the stage with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega in denouncing the United States and its policies toward both Iran and the ALBA nations, and he pledged to invest in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries. The warmth of that contact gave credibility to rumors that Iran has used elite Quds soldiers and Hezbollah agents to create a web of Latin American agents available for terrorist strikes in the United States.  As required by the Republican-sponsored “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” the State Department released a report this summer analyzing Iran’s regional activities. While it expressed concern over Iran’s political and economic links, it concluded that Tehran’s regional commitments had largely gone unfulfilled. Nonetheless, a handful of U.S. Congressmen and the media continue to warn of the looming Iranian threat along what conservative commentators call the “‘soft belly’ of the southern border.”

The Obama Administration has not dismissed entirely the negative impact that a country like Iran can have in Latin America, if nothing else by encouraging political leaders to sustain their anti-U.S. rhetoric campaigns. But the Administration has not subscribed to the right wing’s exaggerations about Iranian activity and indeed is seeking pragmatic agreements with Iran to resolve a series of concerns about its activities, particularly its nuclear program. A handful of members of Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have accused the Obama administration of putting politics over national security by failing to challenge Venezuela and other Iranian allies, though the political advantage the president supposedly achieves with such a policy is unclear. Some xenophobic nationalists on cable TV believe the Iranian activities are part of Islamic imperialism, which poses a threat to Western civilization. Others see the threat as being embodied by Barack Hussein Obama, accusing the administration of hyping the Iranian issue as a pretext to justify the expansion of a U.S. military presence in South America. Today’s paranoia about Latin America is different from during the Cold War years, but only in the identity of the villain. Latin America’s role in the new narrative remains unchanged: it exists primarily as a base of operations for foreign enemies of the United States that must be monitored and pressured to ensure U.S. national security. While the rhetoric of ALBA leaders and their efforts to establish friendly relations with regimes like Iran fuel such paranoia, Washington would be wise to respond to actions rather than empty rhetoric. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears to be doing just that.

Colombia Peace Talks in Havana: Peace on the Horizon?

Photo by: “medea_material” | Flickr | Creatives Commons

The Colombian government and its old adversary, the FARC, are taking tentative steps toward peace.  After a brief delay, the two sides initiated negotiations on a five-point agenda in Havana this week and quickly showed signs of progress.  The FARC declared a unilateral, two-month truce – a step beyond what they granted the last time talks were held from 1999-2001 – without assurance that the Colombian government would reciprocate.  President Juan Manuel Santos, already criticized for the talks, has rejected a cease-fire so far and appears reluctant to double-down on his political bet.  If the truce holds, it would create a much improved environment for the talks.

Most commentators have stressed that the Colombian government is in a much better position now than a decade ago because the FARC has been beaten back militarily.  What has received less attention is how President Santos has put himself in a better position through important non-military reforms.  He has pressed through important measures such as the ley de víctimas, compensating those who have suffered from the conflict; the creation of a more independent judiciary; and agrarian reform measures intended to improve life in the countryside.  Santos is not about to adopt the FARC’s anti-capitalist line, but his policies have addressed some of the problems the guerrillas claim to be fighting to redress.  At the same time, nearly three-quarters of the Colombian people support the talks, according to a Gallup Colombia poll.

Stronger rhetorical support from the Obama Administration – even as it properly remains on the sidelines of the actual talks – would enhance the peace process.  Even an implicit U.S. guarantee of support for implementation of any accord would be a powerful boost to President Santos and help him face down criticism from ex-President Álvaro Uribe and his political allies.  It would also be a clear signal to Latin America that Washington supports social and economic reforms to attain peace and stability, not just military programs.  The Cuban government, accused of fomenting unrest in the past, has shown that it favors peace and undertaken this initiative apparently without expecting any quid pro quo from Colombia’s primary backer, the United States.  Chile and Venezuela have shown support as observers.  For the United States to hesitate, apparently in response to bombastic comments from the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, undermines U.S. influence and leadership on an important issue with hemispheric implications.