August 12, 2022

Washington should not forget Venezuela

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is an egregious violation of international norms that demands a concerted international reaction. However, as foreign policy pundits settle into their Eurocentric comfort zone, Washington must not neglect its important strategic interests elsewhere in an increasingly interconnected world.

Venezuela razorConsider Venezuela. A country of vast oil wealth, with historically deep ties to the United States, and strategically located astride major drug smuggling routes to the United States, Venezuela been roiled by 30 days of spreading street protests that have been met by government repression. Yet it appears only a small group in Congress is interested in an effective U.S. response to the chaos in Venezuela.

There are numerous reasons why more U.S. attention should be paid to this crisis in our own neighborhood.

First, Venezuela possesses the largest amount of proven oil reserves in the world, more than Saudi Arabia — at almost 300 billion barrels. Despite the fact that corruption and cronyism has wrecked Venezuelan oil production, that country’s reserves are a critical part of the global oil supply.

Second, the late strongman Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro have used Venezuela’s prodigious oil income to undermine the hard-won regional consensus on behalf of democracy and human rights. By funding those who ascribe to a new brand of authoritarian populism, Venezuela under chavismo has paralyzed regional institutions whose mandate has been to protect human rights and political freedoms. Accordingly, a regional solution is unlikely.

Third, on another issue important to the United States — narcotics trafficking — Venezuela under chavismo has been particularly destructive. Chavez equated U.S. counternarcotics policies in the region with “neo-imperialism” and expelled Drug Enforcement Agents from the country. Through outright complicity and willful indifference, drug trafficking through Venezuelan territory has exploded in the last decade. Indeed, several senior Venezuelan regime officials have been sanctioned by the United States for their dealings with narco-trafficking Colombian guerrillas. According to the State Department’s annual narcotics report, “Venezuela is one of the most frequently-transited trafficking routes for illegal drugs exiting South America for international markets, owing to its permeable western border with Colombia, weak judicial system, sporadic international counternarcotics cooperation, and permissive and corrupt environment.”

Today, social tensions over shortages of basic consumer goods, runaway inflation, Cuban interference, and the systematic suppression of dissenting opinions over the direction of the country have pushed the country to the brink of civil war. So far, more than two-dozen Venezuelans have died as government-backed gangs use indiscriminate force against protesters.

Clearly, an ideal outcome would be mediation by a credible third party. There is no indication that is going to happen. Thus far, regional heavyweights, such as Brazil, have refused to join in any meaningful response. Until that changes, the United States must act now to hold the Maduro regime accountable for its abuses of its citizens. Professional handwringers will insist that the United States stay on the sidelines or risk reminding everyone of the bad old days of U.S. “interventionism.” However, it is simply not defensible to say more people must die because of someone else’s ideological hang-ups.

Just what should the United States do? We could start by replicating actions taken in the Ukraine crisis. Naming and shaming Venezuelan violators of human rights — revoking U.S. visas, freezing bank accounts and promising to bring them before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Just as with Russian oligarchs, we should cut off access of corrupt Venezuelan officials, who have amassed fortunes under chavismo, to the international financial system.

An embargo on Venezuelan oil imports would finish off the regime, but such a drastic measure will not be contemplated unless the country descends into a full-scale civil war. However, U.S. consumers can effect their own boycott be refusing to buy their gasoline from Citgo, which is 100 percent owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA. Venezuelan oil sales in the United States amount to some $70 million a day for the cash-strapped Maduro government. U.S. motorists should reflect on whether they want to subsidize a government that is shooting at and beating its own citizens in the streets.

There will be no peace in Venezuela until the government addresses the grievances of the protesters and restores the institutions to ensure the opposition’s views can be heard and broadcast over the airwaves. Until that happens, the government is daily forfeiting its legitimacy to govern. Continued instability in Venezuela negatively impacts U.S. and regional interests. Precisely because others have chosen to sit and watch, Washington cannot.

Roger F. Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas. Jose R. Cardenas is a former acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development and is an associate with Vision Americas.