Since 1999, the Venezuelan people have suffered under an oppressive, neosocialist dictatorship that disregarded human rights, the rule of law and freedom of the press. For 14 years, Hugo Chavez trampled over democratic order, jailed political prisoners and oppressed the Venezuelan people. Chavez reportedly accumulated vast amounts of wealth estimated in the billions while Venezuelans suffered from high inflation and joblessness, rampant food shortages and a private sector that is threatened at every turn.
Venezuela is a pivotal national security interest for the United States. It is one of the largest foreign suppliers of crude oil to the United States and is a strategic foothold that continues to pose a threat to our interests in the region. Chavez was instrumental in bringing the threat of narcoterrorism, illicit activities by foreign terrorist organizations and the Iranian regime, including elements of Hezbollah, to the Western Hemisphere. Chavez’s cronies have made it abundantly clear that they do not wish to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement officials on terrorism and countering the narcotics trade. This was made clear once again as the new leadership in Venezuela expelled two U.S. Air Force attaches shortly before Chavez’s death. This unwarranted, provocative action was reciprocated last week when two Venezuelan diplomats were expelled from Washington. Still, there is more to be done.
In a post-Chavez era, much attention is being focused on new elections and a call for democratic order. However, elections for the sake of elections do not constitute a true democracy. Venezuela’s National Electoral Council is extremely corrupt and colludes with Chavez loyalists, who aim to intimidate the masses in Venezuela by controlling the media and judicial system. A free, fair and transparent election cannot be conducted if the same players continue to control the already tainted electoral process. The authoritarian regime cannot be allowed to simply shift control from one despot to another in an effort to maintain its iron grip over the Venezuelan people.
The United States’ role in the post-Chavez era should be to support democratic order by continuing to promote the Venezuelan civil society and ensuring that their rights are respected. The freedom-hungry people of Venezuela fear that the United States is too weak to counter interim President Nicolas Maduro. Support for pro-democracy leaders cannot be accomplished if the Obama administration continues to cozy up to their oppressors and refuses to draw a line in the sand for Mr. Maduro, demanding an end to these undemocratic policies.
Last year, it was reported that the Obama administration was seeking to exchange ambassadors in an attempt to normalize relations between the countries. The U.S. State Department’s approach was extremely premature, and it, unfortunately, legitimized Mr. Maduro without even questioning whether the Venezuelan Constitution was being upheld. The Obama administration continued to send mixed messages and to undermine the opposition by sending a delegation to attend Chavez’s funeral services last week, alongside enemies of the United States, such as Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Words matter, but actions matter more, and this decision not only sends mixed signals to the people of Venezuela, but reiterates the failed policy of attempting to re-establish diplomatic relations.
It is in our best interest if political and economic reforms come to Venezuela, but all signs currently point to the contrary. As the leader of the Chavista movement, Mr. Maduro could potentially be worse for the Venezuelan people and for U.S. national security interests. Mr. Maduro still controls all branches of government, stifles free speech and was indoctrinated with socialist ideology. He has traveled to Tehran and has strong ties with Iran, supports the Assad regime in Syria and has become a lap dog for Cuba’s Castro brothers.
In January, the Castros orchestrated the violation of the Venezuelan Constitution when Chavez did not take the oath of office. The U.S. State Department responded that it is up to the Venezuelan people to decide if there was a violation, and that it would not interpret the constitution. However, those sentiments were nowhere to be found in 2009 when the State Department led the charge against the people of Honduras, helped expel Honduras from the Organization of American States, and did not recognize Honduras’ constitutional authorities. Why the double standard? Democratic rights under the Inter-American Democratic Charter cannot be selective; they must be uniform.
The United States should be telling the leaders of Venezuela that they need to respect the constitution, abide by the Inter-American Democratic Charter and uphold democratic principles. These democratic processes can only be enforced if the Venezuelan leadership thinks that there will be serious repercussions if they do not take responsible actions to fulfill their obligations. This is an opportunity for the United States and responsible nations to demonstrate a commitment to restoring true democracy to Venezuela, and I hope the opportunity isn’t missed.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.