This week a bipartisan group of senators presented a bill calling on the U.S. and regional governments to take a series of steps to address the humanitarian crisis and democratic breakdown in Venezuela. Outlining a set of 11 recommendations, Senators Cardin (D-MD), Rubio (R-FL), Durbin (D-IL), Cornyn (R-TX), Menendez (D-NJ), McCain (R-AZ), Nelson (D-FL), Kaine (D-VA), Van Hollen (MD) call on President Nicolás Maduro to release the 100-plus political prisoners, permit humanitarian assistance, and seek assistance from international financial institutions to reinforce their support for a negotiated solution to the current tragedy.
The beleaguered but still unyielding Maduro isn’t likely to relent, but the bill also calls on the U.S. government to authorize $10 million for humanitarian assistance and another $500,000 for international election assistance. Of course, the country actually has to recognize that it is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, which Maduro has so far refused to do. And it has to actually have elections some day to be observed, which the government in December postponed indefinitely. And then the government would have to invite credible outside observers to monitor the elections, which it hasn’t done since at least 2013, instead only allowing the toothless, partisan UNASUR to monitor the balloting process. (And don’t expect the OAS to be summoned to observe Maduro’s utterly bizarre plans for a constituent assembly.) Still, the optimism is refreshing. Call it a marker, I guess.
More immediate are the calls for the U.S. to work with the regional community and Congress’ support for the Organization of American States (OAS). The question is, will Venezuela’s regional neighbors step up? The famously thin-skinned Maduro government and its Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez have denounced any government that has dared to raise concerns over the deterioration of democracy in Venezuela, including the 17 governments that have voted in OAS Permanent Council discussions to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Venezuelan government’s intolerance will make it difficult to find an honest broker, as will its decision last week to pull out of the OAS. But, of course, that’s exactly its strategy. Even from the early days of former President Hugo Chávez, the Bolivarian government has been getting a pass by overreacting to any perceived slight or resorting to crude, undiplomatic language.
The result was either that the tactics were taken as the ridiculous but harmless antics of a clownish government or so toxic that no one wanted to risk offending the government and its undiplomatic leaders. But, as someone who has watched dozens of 1980s horror movies, I can say, clowns can be dangerous, and at a certain point a government has to be willing to accept the over-the-top, vitriolic blowback from raising legitimate concerns on behalf of international norms and citizens’ rights.
Which brings us to what will likely be the most controversial parts of the bill for many: the call for “additional targeted sanctions on [Venezuelan] individuals undermining democratic governance and involved in corruption.” A number of serious commentators have raised concerns about the effectiveness of sanctions in Venezuela and the possibility they may actually lessen the willingness of other governments in the region to work with the United States toward a solution, and allow the government to whip up nationalist sentiment.
While the history of clumsy U.S. rhetoric and unilateral actions toward Venezuela and the specter of failed Cuba sanctions hang over any talk of sanctions and Venezuela, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First, the individual Treasury Department sanctions originally imposed by the Obama administration and expanded recently by the Trump administration are on individuals with credible evidence of involvement in corruption, human rights abuses and/or narcotics trafficking. And it only affects their ability to travel to and hold assets in the United States. These are not country-wide sanctions. They are similar to the sanctions slapped on 15 members of the 2009 de facto, coup government of Honduras, which many applauded. And I suspect many would have applauded if similar sanctions had been applied to members of the government of Augusto Pinochet in Chile (1973 to 1989). (I certainly would have.)
More, they represent a point of leverage in a country where the U.S. has few points of leverage and where the state appears to be increasingly veering toward becoming a narco-state or a failed state—or both. And on this last point, the bill’s call for the State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies to prepare a report containing what they know about the involvement of Venezuelan officials in corruption and nacro-trafficking may be a welcome wake up call for many. For all the legitimate attention on the eye-ball popping Odebrecht scandals in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Colombia—to name a few—we have few objective, thorough reports on the levels of corruption in Venezuela. And call me a skeptic, but I’m guessing it’s a lot worse.
Will the bill become law? It has an impressive group of co-sponsors. The risk is that in the midst of events in North Korea, Syria, China, and Russia it may well get lost. That would be a shame. While Maduro—thankfully—isn’t armed with nuclear weapons, the 18 years of chavista government have been the reverse of a neutron bomb that has destroyed institutions and only left people standing. The humanitarian, economic security and immigration costs of cleaning up the aftermath will likely be longer-term and much closer to the U.S.’s borders, not to mention Brazil’s, Colombia’s, Guyana’s.