The Complicated U.S. Relationship with Venezuela

Over a year since Hugo Chavez’s death, instability in Venezuela has worsened and relations with the United States remain tumultuous. Indeed, if not for the ongoing situation in the Ukraine, the crisis in this oil-rich nation of approximately 29 million might be more prominently covered in the media.

Since the former socialist president Chavez lost his battle with cancer, Venezuela held a controversial presidential election and the once fragmented opposition has become more united. Clashes between security forces and young people protesting against deteriorating living conditions have resulted in the deaths of at least 34 nationwide. Venezuelans are very frustrated with difficult market conditions including an inflation rate above 55 percent as well as food shortages and an authoritarian government. In congressional testimony, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Venezuelan government was on a ‘terror campaign against his own citizens’.

Nicolas Maduro – the man Chavez urged his followers to support after his death – was declared the winner of the April 2013 presidential election by a 51%-49% margin. The opposition pointed to election irregularities while others accused the government of voter fraud. No meaningful investigations took place. The Obama Administration called for a recount after Maduro was declared the winner by some 262,000 votes out of 15 million cast, but none was conducted. Days later, Maduro proceeded to call President Obama the “grand chief of all devils” for failing to recognize his election victory.

Maduro is a former bus driver who became a union leader and rose through the ranks of the Chavez government to become Foreign Minister and eventually Vice President a year before Chavez’s death. He has governed much like his predecessor did, concentrating power in the executive, stacking the courts system with supporters, and cracking down on dissent from political opponents, the media, and the public.

Like Chavez, Maduro regularly accuses elected officials, members of the military and yes, the U.S., of plotting to overthrow him. Just this week, Maduro’s legislative supporters expelled prominent opposition leader Maria Corina Machado from the Chamber of Deputies. Her “crime?” Planning to speak against the Maduro government’s crackdown on protesters at the upcoming Organization of American States meeting. Because of the expulsion, Machado lost her prosecutorial immunity and will most likely face charges from a judicial system that Maduro allies dominate. So far this year, Maduro has also ordered the arrest of three air force generals and the mayors of San Cristobal and San Diego as well as the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats. Like all opponents of his regime, these various leaders were accused of planning a coup.

Unlike the Ukraine and Russia, Venezuela is in our ‘neighborhood’ and is the fifth largest oil supplier to the U.S. Despite it also calling the U.S. its most important trading partner, Venezuela has very close relations with historical American adversaries Iran and Cuba, of which are on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list. This is cause for concern given Iran’s potential nuclear ambitions and Cuba’s continued adversarial relationship with the U.S. government.

U.S. elected officials, including many in Florida – a state which is home to more than 100,000 Venezuelans—have called for sanctions against anyone who was involved in repressive activities against protesters. Secretary Kerry told lawmakers that he would examine all options, and he should; Maduro thrives on having an “imperial” enemy like the United States. He isn’t interested in fostering a good relationship with the U.S. because he is ideologically opposed to what it stands for: democratic governance, free market economics, and personal liberties. Maduro, like Chavez and Castro, needs and wants the U.S. as an adversary.

What can the U.S. do? Forging closer relationships with Latin American governments is a key first step. Unlike in the European Union where countries there have joined forces with the U.S. to punish Vladimir Putin and Russia for violating international law in Crimea, the OAS has not been very supportive of recent U.S. initiatives because many of the region’s leaders have benefited from Venezuelan oil subsidies or are led by like-minded governments.

Reengagement in the region is badly needed. More American attention will lead to more understanding and shared goals and principles. If the U.S. showed half as much interest in Latin America as it does in other parts of the world, the international pressure against Venezuelan leaders could be much stronger. Only with renewed partnerships will the U.S. be able to build a solid coalition that can effectively urge Maduro and his government to have a meaningful dialogue with the opposition, respect human rights and democratic principles. Although this will be difficult to accomplish, the U.S. needs to continue to be a champion for democracy and human rights by more forcefully advocating for change in Venezuela.

What is needed is a Latin American ‘reset’.

Michael Hernandez is a Sr. Director of Governmental and Public Affairs and Miami Office Director for Penn Schoen Berland, where he provides strategic advising to Latin American governments. He is also a Partner with the Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.