Venezuela’s political crisis grows more explosive

SHORTAGES: People line up outside the Dia a Dia supermarket in Caracas one day after the government took over the chain of stores to punish businesses it blames for worsening shortages. Ariana Cubillos AP
SHORTAGES: People line up outside the Dia a Dia supermarket in Caracas one day after the government took over the chain of stores to punish businesses it blames for worsening shortages. Ariana Cubillos AP

As Venezuela drifts toward repression, the Obama administration has failed to “name and shame” human-rights violators, as mandated by Congress last December. Robust U.S. action is more critical than ever, as authorities in Caracas last week approved the use of deadly force against Venezuelans protesting food shortages and fresh revelations on the criminality of regime leaders.

Career diplomats managing Venezuela policy fiercely resisted Congress’ call for sanctions against individuals using violence to quell student-led demonstrations last spring — giving regime gangs time to crush the unrest, leaving 44 dead, hundreds jailed and thousands injured.

In the midst of the crackdown last March, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson told a U.S. Senate hearing that opposition leaders opposed human-rights sanctions against the regime — an assertion she was forced to recant within days.

In an effort to forestall Congressional action last July, the administration revoked the visas of an undisclosed number of Venezuelan government leaders and security officials.

The State Department adopted a similar half-measure on Monday, failing to identify the people whose U.S. visas were revoked.

Despite administration objections, a bipartisan group in Congress continued to press for a more effective U.S. response. A new law authored by then-Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., requires the president to do more than revoke the visas of those complicit in violent repression or the arrest of political opponent. He must also block the assets of these abusers and, pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), publish the names of the those sanctioned.

Six weeks after this mandate became law, the president has failed to issue a declaration under the IEEPA statute declaring an “emergency” with respect to Venezuela. That would be the initial step required to freeze assets pursuant to the Menendez legislation. In contrast, the Treasury Department moved quickly to publish new regulations relaxing transactions and travel under the president’s new Cuba initiative, announced on Dec. 17.

By delaying implementation of this human-rights mandate, the State Department is turning a blind eye to the regime’s brazen plans to rout any new protests. Last Thursday, Venezuela’s Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino Lopez published a decree authorizing the “use of potentially deadly force … to prevent disorder.”

The last time regime leaders overtly defied Venezuela’s explicit constitutional prohibition (Article 68) of the “use of firearms” to “control peaceful demonstrations,” the military rebelled against the order, leading to the temporary ouster of Hugo Chávez.

The State Department has notoriously downplayed the regime’s criminal record, which undermines its attempts at rapprochement. On two occasions, either through sheer incompetence or worse, U.S. diplomats let major suspected cocaine kingpins wanted on U.S. federal charges escape justice.

The political crisis in Venezuela has grown more explosive in recent days, because of compelling allegations of drug trafficking against National Assembly president Diosdado Cabello being leveled by Chávez’s long-time security chief Leamsy Salazar. A respected navy captain well known to the military establishment and Chavista leaders, Salazar defected to the United States last week to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors.

Sources familiar with the thinking of military leaders in Venezuela report a growing reluctance in their ranks to use force against civilian protesters to buy more time for Maduro’s incompetent regime. If Washington were to publicly sanction known human-rights violators, it might prevent Venezuela’s slide toward bloody repression.

Roger 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 and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His firm, Vision Americas LLC, represents U.S. and foreign clients.

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