Venezuelan democracy is being murdered in the streets of that country as most of the world watches, blind and mute. In a tragic play we have seen many times in the past few years — from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean to Central Asia to Latin America — an authoritarian cabal that claims the title of democracy because it may have once been elected stomps both literally and figuratively on the heads of its citizens as it destroys the very institutions that differentiate democracy from dictatorship. As in many Arab countries, a promising Venezuelan Spring threatens to turn into an autumn.
In Venezuela the uprising came after 15 years of continuous economic decline, rising poverty, increasing political abuse, press censorship, rising crime rates, and unprecedented corruption that led to the enrichment of a privileged few, a “new class” of opulent oppressors and oligarchs. After 15 years of seeing their freedoms and opportunities shrink, the people of Venezuela have taken to the streets, the last platform available to them from which to build a free society.
The Venezuelan media have been muffled by censors or bought out by wealthy government collaborators; independent labor leaders fired, persecuted or exiled; honest merchants and industrialists driven out of business by incompetent, ideological government decision-makers.
Those are just a few of the characteristics of “21st-century socialism,” or “Bolivarian revolution,” a bizarre hybrid of Marxism, populism, and kleptocracy inflicted on Venezuela by the late Hugo Chávez, a cashiered Army lieutenant colonel of limited intellectual powers but with boundless charisma and oratory skills. Chávez’s apprentice, Nicolás Maduro, a Castro-trained labor-union leader of even more limited intellectual capacity, holding only a mediocre high-school diploma but instructed and indoctrinated in Cuba in the 1980s, is now attempting to hold the failed quasi-Marxist experiment together in the way that his mentors taught him: by overwhelming force.
The insurrection in Venezuela is not unlike the contemporary one in Ukraine: a group of corrupt authoritarians holed up in the presidential palace giving orders to uniformed or plainclothes thugs to pummel and shoot unarmed civilians. The Ukrainian play got a lot more attention in the West because it was seen as part of the battle for the soul of post–Cold War Europe, a struggle for freedom and prosperity based on free enterprise and individual initiative, and because Ukraine is a strategic country that must not fall into the hands of the Kremlin or other enemies of democracy.
All the above statements are true. But they are equally true in the case of Venezuela. We should care just as much about a strategic nation in our own neighborhood where unarmed citizens are fighting for their self-determination against native despots and a foreign occupier — there are an estimated 50,000 Cubans in Venezuela, including doctors and teachers, but also intelligence agents, combat troops, and secret police.
Venezuela is potentially one of the globe’s richest nations. It has a territory the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, but with fewer inhabitants. It has the world’s largest reserves of oil, quite a remarkable position when one realizes that the competition includes the Arabian Gulf states, Russia, and the globe’s newest major oil producer (for the second time): the United States of America. Venezuela has the second-largest reserves of natural gas in the Americas (after the U.S.); large deposits of minerals such as iron, bauxite, and gold; and an enviable geographic location reaching from the Caribbean Sea to the Andes mountains to the Amazon basin. From there Hugo Chávez intended to subvert democracy in all directions. And he might have succeeded but for an unanticipated cancer and the predictable collapse of his socialist economic model.
While alive, Chávez used Venezuela’s vast wealth to finance the electoral campaigns of fellow socialist revolutionaries in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, Uruguay, El Salvador, and many other hemispheric nations. Some of Chávez’s allies won and some lost; Chávez’s money was instrumental in some elections but insufficient in others.
If this sounds far-fetched, recall that Chávez’s monetary “political contributions” were discovered and exposed in the most unlikely and distant places. For example, the evidence for Chávez’s multimillion-dollar backing of the electoral campaign of current Argentine president Cristina Kirchner was uncovered in a U.S. federal trial held in Miami, Fla., in 2007. Other cases were exposed through parliamentary (in Peru and Ecuador) or journalistic (Brazil, Panama) investigations in various countries. This interventionist profligacy was made possible by Venezuela’s immense government-controlled petroleum income.
These are just some examples of why Venezuela’s is not a normal government and why therefore normal diplomacy does not work. That government, like many others in the world today, is an organized-crime enterprise, the most recent example of which is Ukraine’s, where the people were shocked as they toured the extravagant mansion of the now-fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, immediately after his flight. The obscene lavishness of the ostentatious estate was evidence of the massive theft of Ukraine’s treasury by the ruling elite. The same is happening in other countries whose “leaders” hide behind a mask of populist rhetoric and leftist ideology while living in a style reminiscent of 18th-century European royalty.
How should the U.S. deal with this new version of rogue nations? First by recognizing that they are organized-crime states and dealing with them as such. For purposes of international protocol, we may have to, for a while, continue the pretense that they are equals: sovereign, democratic, and independent regimes.
But at the same time that our diplomats politely sit at the conference tables with their representatives, other agencies of our government must investigate and document their violations of human rights, their theft of national treasure, their complicity with terrorists or international drug traffickers, and their other delinquencies.
In the case of Venezuela, for example, those links with terrorism and drug trafficking have been amply documented, but our government seems to have a short memory. The government of Colombia has made public hundreds of documents captured from the FARC, Colombia’s Marxist-Leninist guerrilla army. The documents clearly proved the links between Venezuela’s government and the FARC, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union. The FARC has financed itself in large part thorough drug trafficking and other racketeering. According to U.S. drug-enforcement and intelligence officials, the FARC is responsible for over half of cocaine exports from Colombia to the U.S. Even with the links documented, Venezuela did not pay any price for its collaboration with a designated terrorist organization involved in narcotics trafficking.
One reason Chávez did not pay any price was the inexplicable reluctance by our government to impose sanctions (see: Iran, North Korea, Syria . . . ). If there is little appetite for embargoes or other bans that affect entire national economies while their government officials live in comfort, there are ample punishments in the U.S. quiver that could be directed at individual offenders. Many U.S. laws have long been on the books enabling the revocation of visas and the seizure of ill-gotten financial assets.
At this writing, the U.S. Congress is considering imposing exactly those sanctions on Venezuelan officials responsible for the violent repression and massive corruption in that country. That our Congress appears ready to act is a telling commentary on the inaction of our executive branch. Administration officials will surely cry: “Micromanagement of foreign policy by the legislative branch is not good!” All administrations say that (including, I will confess, the ones for which I worked) when the Congress forces a certain action on the executive.
But when the stakes involve our national security, the spread of a hostile ideology, the destruction of regional economies once closely tied to the U.S., and the potential control of a nearby country’s government by terrorists (the Castro government) and drug traffickers (Venezuelan cabinet ministers and general officers were designated as “drug kingpins” in 2008), then Congress must act if the executive does not.
— Otto J. Reich is former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, assistant secretary of state, and senior staff member of the National Security Council.