Turmoil in post-Chavez Venezuela

For 15 years Venezuela has been in the grip of an authoritarian regime, first under the late Hugo Chavez and currently under his anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro. From the beginning, the regime developed a pathological political dependence on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, one which has made it possible for the Castro regime to actually dictate Venezuelan policy.

By Gustavo Coronel | February 26, 2014

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro       Widespread demonstrations….                            ….at the barricades

On Thursday, February 20th, Members of Congress, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-R) and Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-R) announced their plans to sponsor a resolution and legislation that would penalize Venezuela’s government for human rights violations against members of the opposition.

The same day, Senator Marco Rubio (FL-R) released a statement, which said in part, “The Administration should use every diplomatic means necessary to draw attention to the courageous efforts of Venezuelans, the cowardice of [Nicolas] Maduro’s government, and impose sanctions on those planning and actively participating in repressive and violent acts.” [Also see Rubio’s discussion of the Venezuelan crisis with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer via InterAmerican Security Watch.]

Previously, Senator John McCain, in an interview with CNN anchor and chief White House correspondent Jack Tapper, vigorously blasted the corrupt Maduro government and called for U.S. action.

On Saturday, February 22nd Secretary of State, John Kerry, officially stated: “The use of force by the Venezuelan government and judicial intimidation against citizens and public figures who exercise their legitimate right to protest is unacceptable and will only serve to increase the possibilities of violence.”

The Venezuelan regime also has had some U.S. defenders. For days now, TV viewers in Massachusetts have been bombarded with ads from former congressman Joseph Kennedy’s nonprofit, Citizens Energy Group, which supports the Maduro regime as it did the Chavez regime before it and continues to coordinate the delivery of subsidized heating fuel oil to U.S. communities, a propaganda ploy of little transparency. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, A Kennedy Shills for Maduro, the ads are “an almost-perfect exercise in demagoguery.”

The interest on Venezuela shown by these and other prominent Americans in public office come after months, if not years, of indifference. As Venezuelan author Moises Naim says, “Venezuelan poverty is not as dramatic as in Africa, armed conflict not as violent as in Asia and terrorism not so pronounced as in the Middle East.” Today, he adds, the Venezuelan tragedy must compete for attention with events in the Ukraine that could be considered of greater geopolitical significance.

However, the new ingredient in the Venezuelan tragedy is violence. During the month of February an increasingly widespread civic, popular movement against the Nicolas Maduro regime has left at least a dozen Venezuelan students dead, hundreds wounded and many arrested, including the visible head of the civic protests, Leopoldo Lopez. Abundant graphic material can be seen over the Internet showing the brutal repression of Maduro’s henchmen against peaceful protesters, unarmed and mostly young high school and university students. In February, 22 protests against the Venezuelan regime were held in 150 cities around the world and in 20 Venezuelan cities.

What has triggered these protests?

For 15 years Venezuela has been in the grip of an authoritarian regime, first under the late Hugo Chavez and currently under his anointed successor, Nicolas Maduro.  From the beginning, the regime developed a pathological political dependence on Fidel Castro’s Cuba, one which has made it possible for the Castro regime to actually dictate Venezuelan policy. There are about 60,000 Castro-Cubans in Venezuela, inserted into the most sensitive areas of public administration, including the control of ports and airports, military advisers and  security services. Cuba receives about 100,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil per day at practically no cost, a subsidy that amounts to over $3 billion per year.

For a long time the Venezuelan opposition took the electoral route, trying to unseat the pro-Cuban, communist regime. Despite some modest success at the polls it became evident that the electoral process was firmly in the regime’s control and that an electoral victory by the opposition would never really be allowed. However, these electoral events helped the regime to maintain a semblance of legitimacy. In many ways the opposition helped to validate an image of transparency to what has been a very perverse, fraudulent electoral process.

As time went by, the corruption and ineptitude of the regime became more evident. Venezuela now has become one of the three most violent countries in the world, with over 20,000 citizens being murdered every year. At 56% in 2013, Venezuelan inflation was the highest in the world. In spite of record oil income, Venezuelan public debt soared, becoming six times greater than the debt existing when Chavez took over in 1999. Acute food shortages, the most essential medicines and even such mundane supplies as toilet paper have created increasing indignation among the population. An inefficient currency exchange control that has already lasted eight years has paralyzed a large number of Venezuelan industries, while enriching members of the regime and their friends. Lack of payment by the regime has led international airlines from American Airlines to Air Canada and United Airlines, as well as foreign industries such as Toyota and General Motors to suspend or curtail their activities. The Venezuelan petroleum company, Petroleos de Venezuela, is technically bankrupt, since the amount of its debts and financial obligations now exceeds the value of its assets.

Maintaining power over a terrorist haven on America’s doorstep

Journalist and author of a book on Hugo Chavez, Rory Carroll, writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper aptly summarizes the prevailing mood among Venezuelan citizens: “There is no more pretence that the revolution is pretty. It is in the business of keeping power, no more, no less. It offers no solution to the fiasco, the tragedy that is Venezuela.” Thousands of Venezuelans now feel they have to be in the streets.

In spite of John Kerry’s statement, the Obama administration lacks a coherent policy regarding Venezuela. The Maduro government has already blamed the U.S. for the massive protests and has expelled three American diplomats from the country, accusing them of inciting students to violence. In the past, similar accusations were made by Chavez. In response, the U.S. has essentially expressed a desire to improve relations, failing to expose the Venezuelan regime for what it is, a Cuban-inspired and Cuban-controlled tyranny, openly looking to extend Cuban-style communism over all the Americas.

Venezuela has sided openly with the FARC narco-terrorists in Colombia, operatives of Iran’s terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, and Spain’s Basque terrorist group ETA, who occupied high administrative positions in the Chavez government. Meanwhile, the Cuban military has participated in the repression against Venezuelan citizens and control much of Venezuelan policy-making apparatus. In many ways, Venezuela has been silently invaded by Castro’s Cuba, a parasite sucking oil resources from its Venezuelan host nation beginning with the complicity of Hugo Chavez and now subscribed to by his successor, Nicolas Maduro – all under the nose of the United States. This is a situation of great geopolitical significance for America and one that merits a clear and strong response from the U.S. government.

The need to change US-Venezuelan policy

Obvious actions, some of which have already been mentioned by political analysts and prominent U.S. political figures include:

    • Asking for the application of the InterAmerican Democratic Charter to Venezuela and for the removal of Cubans from the decision-making apparatus of the Venezuelan regime. This could be done as a vigorous diplomatic initiative within the Organization of American States (OAS), which has remained lethargic in the face of the Venezuelan tragedy, largely due to the invertebrate posture of Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza. In the 1960s Kennedy almost went to war over the Russian missiles on Cuban soil. Today, however, there are 60,000 Cubans (human “missiles) on Venezuelan soil, a country member of the OAS, and no one, except the Venezuelans in the streets, is doing much about it. It is up to the U.S. to resume its leadership role in the Western Hemisphere.
    • Sanction and freeze the assets of 200 of the most prominent members of the Venezuelan regime and place them on a no-fly list, while prohibiting them from doing business in the U.S. There are many corrupt Venezuelan officials and their families who have properties in the U.S., obtained with money stolen from the Venezuelan people.
  • Play the oil card by cutting partially or entirely the volume of Venezuelan oil being imported into the U.S. This volume has decreased considerably under the current Venezuelan regime, to about 800,000 barrels per day, but is about the only oil that is generating cash payments. Depriving the regime of this income could accelerate political change in Venezuela, without damaging the U.S., since there are enough alternatives to Venezuelan oil available in the marketplace.  While there would be other takers, the added cost of shipping to faraway ports, whether China or Iran would add a burden to prospective clients. The U.S. has rarely used oil as a political tool and this strategy could have some drawbacks, but it would only be repaying the Venezuelan regime with its own coin. Chavez and Maduro have explicitly used Venezuelan oil as a political tool either to gain loyalty among Latin American and Caribbean countries or to punish countries that do not toe the line.

These and other possible actions that could be taken by the Obama administration would truly serve to align U.S. interests with U.S. principles and inform the Venezuelan patriots who have taken to the streets seeking freedom and liberty for themselves and their posterity and independence and sovereignty for their nation that America stands with them.

Gustavo Coronel, who served on the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), has had a long and distinguished career in the international petroleum industry, including in the USA, Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia. Mr. Coronel was elected to the Venezuelan House of Deputies representing Carabobo. He is an author, public policy expert and contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.