Time for Change in Venezuela
Congressman Francis Rooney
Too often Latin America’s strategic importance has been overlooked by United States policy makers, which is a mistake because instability in the region undermines security in the entire western hemisphere. The corrupt socialist regime in Venezuela, which has links to terrorist groups in the Middle East, is a prime example of why instability in Latin America should be a major focus of U.S. policy makers.
There are currently two divergent blocs which comprise most of the countries in Latin America. The first bloc, which includes Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Peru, is committed to the rule of law, free markets and political freedom. The second group is one of authoritarian, populist governments which maintain their power through suppression of the opposition and corruption. Cuba and Venezuela are the worst offenders of this second style of governance. It is important to the United States that the second bloc to reverse course and become more ideologically aligned with the first.
Unfortunately, the humanitarian crisis in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is escalating. Socialism has robbed the people of this once prosperous nation of necessities such as food and medicine, with a recent study showing that starvation has caused citizens of Venezuela to lose an average of 19 pounds over the last year. The capital city of Caracas now has the highest murder rate in the world. Political opponents of the Chavista regime under President Nicolas Maduro are routinely jailed, including Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma and the leader of the opposition, Leopoldo Lopez, who was sentenced to prison in 2014 for organizing anti-government protests. The economic situation and the clampdown on the opposition has created discontent among the Venezuelan people, leading to past demonstrations against the government and an attempt to democratically and legally remove Maduro from office.
Instead of following the will of the people who desire greater freedom and prosperity, Maduro acts solely to preserve his loosening hold on power. After the opposition gained control of Parliament in the 2015 election, the government, through its control of the legal system, undertook measures to suppress an effort to recall the President. Measures have also been taken to strengthen the president at the expense of the dissenting legislature. Maduro’s recent appointment of a vice president is another slap in the face to the Venezuelan people. In January 2017 Maduro appointed Tareck El Aissami, the self-described “radically Chavista” governor of the state of Aragua, as his deputy. El Aissami has been accused of tampering with the recall effort in his state and of having ties to drug traffickers and various radical Islamic terrorist groups. He has been accused of nurturing Islamic extremists’ access to the Americas and Europe, including selling Venezuelan passports to Hezbollah-connected radicals in the Middle East.
It is heartening to see that one month into the Trump Administration, we are witnessing a tougher approach from the United States government in dealing with the regime in Venezuela. On February 13th, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated El Aissami and his alleged front man, Samark Lopez, as narcotics traffickers under the Kingpin Act, freezing assets, estimated to be worth around $3 billion, which El Aissami has in the United States, and prohibiting Americans from engaging or dealing with the Venezuelan vice president. This designation is the result of a multi-year investigation into El Aissami’s ties to the Zetas cartel in Mexico and his connections to numerous drug lords across Latin America. Given the mountain of evidence, El Aissami’s denial of these charges as baseless political propaganda is unconvincing and this action is one more example of the corrupt Venezuelan government struggling to maintain legitimacy at home and abroad.
Two days later, the United States continued to apply pressure on the Venezuelan government when President Donald Trump met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Shortly after the meeting, the president tweeted a picture of himself, Tintori, Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the White House along with a declaration that Venezuela should immediately release Lopez from prison. This action sent a strong signal to the Venezuelan government and other illiberal regimes in Latin America that the United States is paying attention.
Time is running out for the Maduro regime, and the only question that remains is how long it can last. Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, whose recent victory in 2015 ended twelve years of authoritarian populism in his country, has also condemned the Maduro regime, saying that “democracy and human rights” are not respected in Venezuela. Further actions and statements by the United States, the Organization of American States (OAS) and regional leaders in Latin America can hasten the end of Maduro’s desperate attempt to hold on to power, and can put Venezuela on the path to a return to the prosperity that the people had enjoyed prior to the Bolivarian Revolution in 2002.