The US House of Representatives version of the Venezuela sanctions bill passed on May 28. Now a very similar bill is paralyzed in the Senate, as senators continue to debate whether or not such sanctions are worthwhile. Meanwhile, it is our understanding, derived from various conversations with a number of members of Congress, that the White House and some senators continue to oppose the bill.
According to informal conversations with offices of some senators, the main question hesitant legislators are asking is whether these sanctions will have any effect at all. It seems that Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) on the Republican side and Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) on the Democrat side are the two opponents of the legislation, and are now holding it hostage in committee.
While one never knows how effective sanctions will be, it is a false argument to claim they won’t work, since it is impossible to know the answer unless they are activated. What is equally important is the message such sanctions would send to the people of Venezuela and to the opposition, many of whom have been brutalized and imprisoned by the Maduro regime.
The bill imposes “targeted sanctions on persons responsible for violations of human rights of antigovernment protesters in Venezuela, to strengthen civil society in Venezuela and for other purposes.” Likewise, the bill, called the ‘‘Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014,” calls “to support the people of Venezuela in their aspiration to live under conditions of peace”; “to work in concert with the other member states within the Organization of American States, as well as the countries of the European Union, to ensure the peaceful resolution of the current situation in Venezuela”; “to hold accountable government and security officials in Venezuela responsible for or complicit in the use of force in relation to the antigovernment protests that began on February 12, 2014, and similar future acts of violence”; and” to continue to support the development of democratic political processes and independent civil society in Venezuela.”
In practical terms, besides freezing assets of individual perpetrators of human rights, the bill also allocates US$15 million for civil society organizations that support democracy.
If we judge by the numbers, it may not impress those who expect a major change in the Venezuelan government’s attitude.
However, these sanctions represent an important first step in setting up a precedent and getting the US Government and our foreign policy establishment fully involved in what is occurring in Latin America.
Very often when the White House or Congress thinks of Latin America, they do not think in terms of priority. Certainly the crisis in the Ukraine and now in Iraq are likely to push our neighbors from the South further to the margins of our foreign policy agenda.
But is Latin America really as unimportant as our establishment seems to think?
For example, there are certain events that occur in our hemisphere that may not set off alarm bells but at the very least should garner some attention and concern. Recently, in the Bolivian area of Santa Cruz, a major gathering of the United Nations group called the G-77 plus China took place. That group originally formed in 1964 with the objective of “putting an end to the world division between the spheres of opulent wealth and unbearable poverty.”
A large number of countries that form this third-world bloc are non-democratic or do not hold democracy in the same high esteem as they hold economic equality or their own thirst for power.
The main organizer of this gathering was also the host, President Evo Morales of Bolivia. As soon as he took the presidency of the group, he set up the agenda, which includes the “refoundation of democracy from representative to participatory democracy” and makes “basic services (welfare and distribution) the main universal human right.”
Of course, this is exactly what the Bolivarian revolution under Hugo Chavez set up as the main pillar of his ideology. What this means in practice is the elimination of liberal democracy in favor of a sort of “populist democracy,” which in empirical terms has meant nothing but populist authoritarianism at the expense of human and civil rights.
In the name of welfare and the people, the leader is elected by the people. Therefore, his will is equal to the will of the people.
Likewise, Morales pointed out before the gathering, “we need to make clear to all those present here, that the real enemy of the people is imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism”.
According to Álvaro García Linera, Bolivia’s vice-president, Evo Morales is the natural successor of Hugo Chávez. García Linera is the organic intellectual of the Bolivian government and had a lot to say in the preparation of the G-77 plus China conference. He has advocated for “the elimination of the party system, its representatives, and the destruction of the legislative and judicial powers, the electoral courts, the mass media and its owners.” He has also supported violence against political enemies and opponents.
These kinds of anti-democratic policies are all part of the Chávez legacy of hostility towards the United States and the West.
As an example, among the resolutions adopted by the G-77 is one that blames Britain for the current serious economic crisis Argentina is facing, because Great Britain is unwilling to negotiate on the Falkland Islands. A second resolution refers to the debt Argentina has with holdout hedge funds, a long-running litigation that has reached the US Supreme Court. The resolution states “the importance of not allowing these vulture funds to paralyze the debt-restructuring activities of developing countries nor impede these states their right to protect their peoples in accordance with international law.” In other words, both resolutions hold the United States and Great Britain responsible for a problem that Argentina’s national government created.
No less surprising is that the 133 countries represented in the G-77 stressed their support for the government of Venezuela as “it faces imperialist aggression from the United States that threatens to intervene in Venezuela.” Ironically, these resolutions were being adopted while President Obama and others were trying to prevent sanctions aimed mainly at the thugs that rule Venezuela. Are we underestimating these events?
Latin-American countries are at the forefront of this gathering, and several Latin-American presidents attended this event that seems to be a combination of third-world countries with emerging markets. The only world power that participated, unsurprisingly, was China, as it seeks to make geopolitical gains and reduce US political influence around the globe.
In other words, the Chávez legacy, despite the multiple protests in Venezuela, continues to exercise international leadership while downgrading democracy.
If the United States does not watch events in Latin America and does not speak up when democracy comes under assault, what kind of message are we conveying?
Sanctions against Venezuelan perpetrators and support for the democratic movement in Venezuela is just a beginning, but it is taking a stand and making an important statement that will be deeply appreciated by those fighting on the front lines for their basic human rights. Those who fight for democracy need to know that the United States is on their side.
As President Obama said in his West Point speech: “When we protect democracy, we protect our national interests.” However, thus far, we have done neither.
This article first appeared in the Americas Report.