If we can do it for Cuba, why not Venezuela?
By Robert Weiner and Daniel Wallace
Last month, more than 20 military personnel broke into the office of Caracas mayor and prominent opposition leader Antonio Ledezma. They dragged him out of his office "like a dog," said fellow opposition politician Ismael Garcia, and arrested him based on accusations that he was involved in a coup plot. He is still imprisoned. Since then, there have been protests, and a teen got killed by overaggressive police at one. Clearly, the situation is messy.
However, Ledezma's "capture," as President Nicola's Maduro described it, and the basis of the current issues, may not have even happened if the government had a good reason to allow democratic opposition. If the United States had a mutually advantageous commercial and public affairs policy with Venezuela, that could be incentive for Maduro's government not to take such actions against its own citizens.
Instead, the State Department further estranged Venezuela by announcing that it would deny visas to its officials. "These are the contradictions of an empire," said Maduro about these sanctions so soon after President Obama's announcement to reduce those against Cuba.
Venezuela, like Cuba, is a key U.S. neighbor, the closest country to us in South America. We are related economically by oil trade, geographically by hemisphere, and demographically by 259,000 ex-Venezuelans in the U.S. Almost half of those live in Florida. It's time for the Administration to give Venezuela the same respect that it's given Cuba.
Instead of acting to improve relations, we have fueled the fire. Leaders' handshakes, like Obama's with former president Hugo Cha'vez, are turned into international scandal. There was an exception that defines what's possible. Cha'vez described a 2011 handshake and chat with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's as "a pleasant moment."
Whether we like it or not, Maduro and Cha'vez were elected. The Carter Center's observation of international elections, one of Carter's greatest post-presidential achievements, confirmed that the 2012 re-election of Cha'vez was "publicly accepted by the candidates, and recognized by the citizenry without major disturbances." The report on President Maduro's 2013 election provided "recommendations to ensure greater equity in the development of political campaigns," but did not refute its legitimacy.
He's their winner, not ours to pick. We don't pick the leadership of China or Russia. Even after the most prominent opposition party leader was murdered on February 28, Putin and his officials still have their visas.
Senator Marco Rubio apparently hasn't read the Venezuelan election results in a February 5 letter to Obama seeking more sanctions. He wrote about "Maduro's government's determination to cling to power by whatever means necessary."
If we want to be respected in Latin America, it's time to give the policy of damnation a rest. Sanctions provide a scapegoat. With lower global oil prices, Venezuela's economy is faltering. The Venezuelan people love oil-funded social programs and five cents-per-gallon gasoline. But they are grasping for solutions to prevent their social benefit programs from sucking the national treasury dry.
Instead of importing 5% from Russia, U.S. oil could come cheaper and faster from Venezuela. China -- not the US -- is benefitting most from Venezuela's oil now. It's embarrassing that Joe Kennedy and not the U.S. government worked out a discounted oil deal with Venezuela for low income Americans.
In the spirit of John Kennedy's Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress, the U.S. needs to revive volunteer people-to-people organizations to help the hemisphere's poor, once our best vehicle of good will. If direct contact can help dispel dogma from both sides, this or the next U.S. president might be welcomed in Venezuela with the warmth and fanfare that greeted Kennedy in 1961.
Hillary Clinton went to Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Guatemala and received enormous warmth -- but did not go to Venezuela, closer to us. President Obama went to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador--but not Venezuela.
Last month, Maduro asked the Secretary General of the Union of South American Nations to mediate between Venezuela and the U.S. Instead of making Maduro feel he needs a mediator, it's time to take positive steps.