By Jim Lobe
Pending legislation calling for U.S. President Barack Obama to impose sanctions against key Venezuelan officials is unlikely to defuse the ongoing crisis there and could prove counter-productive, according to both the administration and independent experts here.
A bill approved overwhelmingly Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would authorise Obama to freeze any financial assets in U.S. institutions and cancel U.S. visas for Venezuelan officials deemed responsible for “directing significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses against persons associated with the anti-government protests in Venezuela.”
The bill, a similar version of which was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, would also authorise sanctions against anyone who has provided assistance to government security forces and commit 15 million dollars in support for “pro-democracy” groups and independent media in the South American nation.
“Today we took an important step forward to punish human rights abusers in (President) Nicolas Maduro’s regime,” declared Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the bill with the Committee chair, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.
“(N)ow that thousands of innocent Venezuelans have protested courageously and peacefully against the failure that is this chavista government, we can’t allow the government’s repression, violence and murders to go unpunished,” he said in a statement after the 13-2 vote.
On a visit to Mexico Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry noted Congressional support for sanctions and hinted that the administration may feel compelled to impose them.
“Our hope is that the leaders, that President Maduro and others, will make decisions that will make it unnecessary for them to be implemented. But all options remain on the table at this time, with the hopes that we can move the (dialogue) process forward,” he said.
A number of experts, as well as senior administration officials, however, warned that the legislation, however well-intended, could make matters worse in the deeply polarised oil-rich country.
“I think people are really frustrated about what’s happening in Venezuela,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank here.
“But the U.S. doesn’t have a lot of leverage, and, while sanctions make people feel good, I can’t imagine them accomplishing much except to give Maduro another reason to attack the United States.
“It also risks alienating Latin American governments,” which, with the Vatican and under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), have taken the lead in trying to mediate Venezuela’s divisions through dialogue between Maduro and moderate opposition forces.
“I just can’t imagine any Latin American governments seeing this as a good idea or helpful under present circumstances,” he told IPS.
“The U.S. has tried hard not to become the centre of the debate, realising – correctly, in my opinion – that it would only help the Maduro government point to Washington as the source of the protests and distract attention from the genuine and legitimate grievances that have given rise to the protests,” added John Walsh, a Venezuela specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“One of the tacks that has been available to (Maduro) to get out of the dialogue and major compromises that it might force him to take is the ability to reframe the protest movement and the opposition as people in thrall to or actually taking orders from the ‘Empire’ as part of an international conspiracy to de-stabilise the government and push Chavismo out of power.”
Indeed, this has been the position taken by the Obama administration throughout the most recent crisis, which began in late February with student demonstrators demanding that Maduro step down.
In hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson stressed Washington’s support for the UNASUR-led initiative.
“This is not a U.S.-Venezuela issue; it is an internal Venezuelan issue,” she told the senators. “…We have strongly resisted attempts to be used as a distraction from Venezuela’s real problems.”
The Senate bill, which is considered almost certain to pass if Majority Leader Harry Reid permits it to go to the floor, comes after the government-opposition dialogue – in which the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador have acted as UNASUR’s representatives – broke down last week over, among other issues, opposition demands that all political prisoners be freed.
In a report entitled ‘Venezuela: Tipping Point’ and released Wednesday, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned that failure to resolve the stand-off could plunge the country into yet more violence, “leaving it unable to address soaring criminality and economic decline and exposing the inability of regional inter-governmental bodies to manage the continent’s conflicts.”
Since February, at least 42 people have died in confrontations between security forces and pro-government gangs known as “colectivos” and opposition forces.
While some opposition sectors have reportedly used violence, independent human rights groups have blamed most of the casualties on the government and its allies. In a harsh report issued earlier this month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused security forces of severely beating and, in some cases, shooting at point-blank range, peaceful protesters, subjecting detainees to severe abuse sometimes amounting to torture, and, in some cases collaborating with the colectivos in their attacks on protestors and bystanders.
The increased repression, as well as the impasse in the dialogue, has intensified concern here about the likelihood of further polarisation that will strengthen hard-liners on both sides.
In its report, the ICG called for all sides to consider the appointment of an international facilitator, possibly from the U.N. system, to join the UNASUR-Vatican effort, as well as the deployment of a U.N. technical mission to support it.
While the administration opposes sanctions at this point, one senior State Department official said it hoped to intensify discussions with regional governments, beginning with Kerry’s visit to Mexico, about what more can be done to get the dialogue back on track.
“The real question is for them to sort of compare notes on what they’re hearing out of Venezuela, whether we think the efforts that UNASUR and the Vatican are making are working, and what more can we do from outside that process to either help it along or to be ready to do something more,” the official said.
“(T)he last thing we want to do is torpedo any dialogue that might lead to action, but we’re just as frustrated as the Senate is that nothing has happened yet.”
Kerry reflected that frustration Wednesday, accusing the government of a “total failure …to demonstrate good-faith actions to implement those things that they agreed to do approximately a month ago.”
“I think more high-level consultations with other governments about how they see the situation and to work with them could be helpful,” said IAD’s Shifter.
“But the critical country is Brazil, and, unfortunately, (U.S.) relations with Brazil aren’t good because of the Snowden affair that led to the postponement of (President Dilma) Rousseff’s state visit that was supposed to take place late last year.”