Trying to track the course of U.S. policy toward Venezuela is enough to give one whiplash. Where a few weeks ago Barack Obama's administration appeared to take a principled stand behind opposition protests asserting that this April's presidential election to elect Hugo Chávez's successor was stolen, today it seems to have tossed the opposition overboard as it seeks to normalize relations with the disputed government of Nicolás Maduro.
Even as opposition leader Henrique Capriles has been traveling to regional capitals seeking support for his campaign for a clean election, someone at the State Department evidently thought it was perfect timing for a smiling, handshaking photo op between Secretary of State John Kerry and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua at last week's Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala.
Certainly it would be understandable if a U.S.-Venezuelan rapprochement was the product of some identifiable change in that government's behavior -- some nod to the legitimacy of the opposition's complaints, maybe a commitment to stop berating the United States and friendly countries, or perhaps even a public pledge to finally cooperate on counternarcotics policy. Yet none of this has occurred.
Instead, this is what we have seen from the Maduro government in the last few months:
Not exactly what you would call a charm offensive.
Indeed, the only thing we have seen from the Maduro government since its tainted victory is an accelerated offensive to replace the Castro regime as the bully in the Latin American neighborhood, using threats both explicit and implicit to intimidate anyone daring to criticize its anti-democratic actions.
Rewarding bad behavior is no way to treat a bully. Moreover, one does not have to be Bismarck to recognize that indulgence of belligerent actions among states only encourages more aberrant behavior.
Most frustrating is that, unlike Chávez, Maduro's vitriol and bombast are a reflection of his weakness, not his strength. Clearly, he is in over his head, commands no respect at home, has disputed legitimacy, and is manifestly incapable of managing the socioeconomic disaster bequeathed by Chávez. In such a scenario, he desperately needs U.S. recognition of his regime, and it is now being handed to him on a silver platter, with no apparent concessions being demanded of him.
That isn't statesmanship; it's an abdication of it. Maduro and his Cuban minders are avowed enemies of the United States. Throwing them a "lifeline" -- as the Washington Post put it in a blistering editorial -- with some wooly hope that they will see the error of their ways will only succeed in inviting an even worse situation for U.S. interests than the one we are confronting now.
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Many in Washington have been expressing growing alarm over the devastating toll that drug trafficking and gang activity have taken on the countries of Central America, primarily in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Caught between more robust counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico that have forced drug-trafficking organizations to expand operations elsewhere while absorbing convicted gang deportees from the U.S., these countries' already weak law enforcement and judicial institutions have simply been overwhelmed.
It is in this context that controversial and risky policy prescriptions such as calls for drug legalization by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina or El Salvador's "truce" with criminal gangs are being met with less skepticism than they deserve. It is not always true that desperate situations demand desperate actions. In many cases, they only make matters worse.
This week, the Washington Post weighed in with an editorial endorsing El Salvador's gang truce (and Honduras's decision to follow the same path) as "a worthy peace offering" because El Salvador's government claims a drop in the murder rate since the agreement was announced last year.
Yet a closer scrutiny of the El Salvador situation raises more questions than it answers. It is not hard to conclude it represents more of a false promise of peace than any lasting solution to the region's troubles.
That's because, to begin with, the government's pursuit of a truce with the gangs comes not from a position of strength, but of weakness - a fact no doubt understood by the gangs, who are now in a stronger position vis-à-vis the government than they would otherwise be. They now control the agenda and can use the threat of violence (i.e., breaking the "truce") to exact more concessions from the government, whether it is more scarce state resources devoted to their interests (such as social programs designed just for gang members), more so-called "peace zones" where gangs can operate with impunity, and more recognition of gangs as political players in the country's domestic scene.
Indeed, public sentiment in El Salvador continues to be extremely wary of the truce, not least of which is because the gangs have not stopped other criminal activities such as kidnappings and extortion that have wreaked havoc on their society. (There are also questions about the government's accounting of the murder rate.) But also because they see gangs getting financial rewards and political relevancy not by following the rules, but by breaking all of them.
The Obama administration has wisely kept its distance from these "truce" initiatives. That's because veteran policymakers know there are no shortcuts to rooting out criminality; it requires instead committing to the hard slog of building viable law enforcement, judiciary, and penal systems - in short, credible and effective rule of law. (Only then can social programs designed to reintegrate truly repentant gang members into society succeed.)
One also has to recognize the political dynamic at play here. The ruling, former guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) came to power promising citizens a safer and more stable country. This they have not delivered. Heading into presidential elections in March 2014, one doesn't have to be a cynic to believe the FMLN wants the issue of street violence off the table before the campaign season kicks into high gear. Their political calculations have to be an issue in how they are trying to achieve real peace.
One can certainly otherwise understand sincere efforts to try and quell the violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. But political expediency or rolling the dice and hoping for the best are rarely sound bases for public policies.
The Post editorial ends by endorsing the Obama administration's request for a 20 percent increase in funding next year for the Central American Security Initiative, a multi-faceted program supporting law enforcement and judicial reform and social programs to support civil society. That is welcome, but it may not be enough. All must recognize there are no quick fixes to helping our friends deal with problems due in part to U.S. demand for illicit narcotics. It is a battle we and our allies can win, but not in the short-term and not with schemes that will only make matters worse in the long-run.
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The headline is as tendentious as it was predictable. The surprise is that it should appear on a mainstream site like that of ABC News and not some fringe outlet of the fevered left. Indeed, the headline is the holy grail for those legions of activists who have been egging on the recent conviction of former Guatemalan military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide stemming from the country's bloody civil war in the 1980s.
The activists claim that what they have wanted all along is justice for civilians who died in that terrible conflict, but it is clear their ulterior motive has been seeking an indictment of U.S. policy in Central America to resist Soviet- and Cuban-sponsored subversion. Now, in their minds, they have it. Guilty as charged: The United States, under President Ronald Reagan, aided and abetted "genocide."
The charge is without merit. Here's the real story: Ríos Montt came to power in March 1982 after leading a coup against another general, Fernando Lucas García, whose scorched-earth policies against the guerrillas had so alienated Washington that military assistance was cut off in 1979. However, in overthrowing Lucas García, Ríos Montt acknowledged the military's excesses were damaging the counterinsurgency effort.
It was in that context that the Reagan administration reconsidered military assistance to Guatemala, calculating that it would give the administration influence to hold Ríos Montt to his pledges to mitigate the violence. Aid was then restored in January 1983. While it turned out that Ríos Montt was either unwilling or incapable of reining in the military, the point became moot in August 1983, when Ríos Montt himself was overthrown in a coup after only 17 months in power -- and seven months after the Reagan administration began sending aid.
Now, if someone wants to argue that the Reagan administration's policy gamble on Ríos Montt to quell the violence did not pan out, then that's one thing (history books are full of such examples). But to equate it with aiding and abetting "genocide" is beyond the pale. In fact, it is more evidence of an ideological agenda than any noble search for accountability. Worse, it is politicizing crimes against humanity that cheapens the meaning of the term and makes it that much more difficult to prevent and to hold real perpetrators accountable.
On a broader plane, it bears noting that those who have cheered on the prosecution of General Ríos Montt have never mounted any similar movement to hold, for example, Fidel Castro to account for his role in supplying training and weapons to guerrillas who committed their share of atrocities throughout Central America. Why is it only right-wing dictators like Chile's Augusto Pinochet and Ríos Montt who are hounded to their dying days and whose years in power were a mere fraction of Castro's 50-year dictatorship? It seems that those who are determined to achieve justice for victims of dictatorships in the Americas would enhance their credibility immensely if they were to apply a single standard to all perpetrators of crimes against their peoples, regardless of their ideology.
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Last year, in the run-up to what would be Hugo Chávez's final election, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter provided the ultimate cover for the late caudillo when he called the Venezuelan election process "the best in the world." Today, as the country roils in the aftermath of a contested election to elect Chávez's successor, we now know that is not the case.
Who says? Carter's own election-monitoring organization. Last week, an official at the Carter Center told the Washington Post, "The concerns are not about the [voting] machines and whether they counted accurately. The questions are much more about who voted. Was there double voting? Was there impersonation of voters? And was there coerced voting?"
All good questions, ones which anyone should expect to be assessed before making pronouncements about any electoral process as the "best in the world." This is no small matter, since the Carter Center, perhaps more than any other organization outside Venezuela, has repeatedly granted legitimacy to Hugo Chávez's successive reelections, even as the evidence mounted that elections in Venezuela were exceedingly one-sided affairs.
From stacking the electoral council with his loyalists, to his near-monopoly control of the broadcasting media, to his non-transparent spending of Venezuela's record oil profits for political purposes, to intimidating voters with the public exposure of their votes, Chávez used every tactic, above-board and underhanded, to smother opposition candidates.
But with the rabble-rouser-in-chief no longer among us, it appears chavismo, the movement Chávez created, has run its course. Something went seriously awry in April's snap election for Chávez's chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro. Whereas the late president won the October election by eleven percentage points, Maduro barely edged challenger Henrique Capriles, beating him by one percentage point.
What we learned from that election is that Maduro is no Chávez, and not even the obscene collusion between the government, the ruling party, and electoral officials could change that. (My colleague Roger Noriega has exposed the sophisticated chavista vote-getting machine here.) What they failed to account for was that Chávez's link with his base was not transferrable to the wooden Maduro.
What Chávez's successors also underestimated this time around is the adamant refusal of the opposition to accept another rigged election. They have demanded a recount, filed a protest with the Supreme Court, and asked for international solidarity with their cause. The Maduro government and its Cuban handlers have responded with the only thing they have left: violence.
Last week, opposition lawmakers were physically attacked on the floor of the National Assembly after they protested a move to silence them. Before that, Venezuelans were attacked in the street by government-armed thugs as they protested the election result.
Given the ongoing turmoil, the Obama administration has taken a principled stand in not recognizing the outcome until the opposition's grievances are dealt with in some satisfactory way. During his trip to the region this past weekend, President Obama addressed the controversy:
"I think that the entire hemisphere has been watching the violence, the protests, the crackdowns on the opposition. I think our general view has been that it's up to the people of Venezuela to choose their leaders in legitimate elections. Our approach to the entire hemisphere is not ideological. It's not rooted back in the Cold War. It's based on the notion of our basic principles of human rights and democracy and freedom of press and freedom of assembly. Are those being observed? There are reports that they have not been fully observed post-election. I think our only interest at this point is making sure that the people of Venezuela are able to determine their own destiny free from the kinds of practices that the entire hemisphere generally has moved away from."
Right on the money, Mr. President. Let's hope someone is listening in Georgia.
EGILDA GOMEZ/AFP/Getty Images
[Update: Last night, Venezuelan electoral authorities agreed to a partial audit of Sunday's vote, although not the full recount demanded by challenger Henrique Capriles.]
After an ill-advised overture to Hugo Chávez's government last November, the Obama administration has regained its footing with a strong, principled stance on Venezuela's contested election. Based on the razor-thin margin and opposition protests of irregularities, the administration has yet to recognize as the winner Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's anointed successor, and has instead supported a review of the vote count.
In appearances before both the House and Senate in recent days, Secretary of State John Kerry re-affirmed that position "so that the people of Venezuela who participated in such a closely divided and important election can have the confidence that they have the legitimacy that is necessary in the government going forward."
He said, "I don't know whether it's going to happen. ... [But] obviously, if there are huge irregularities, we are going to have serious questions about the viability of that government."
Kerry's statements brought the predictable howls of protest from Venezuela. "It's obscene, the U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of Venezuela," Mr. Maduro said. "Take your eyes off Venezuela, John Kerry! Get out of here! Enough interventionism!"
But no one should be intimidated by such false bravado.
Maduro is in a panic. He knows he cannot handle declining socio-economic conditions in the face of a reinvigorated opposition, dissension in his own ranks, and an engaged U.S. government standing firm on principle regarding the legitimacy of his election.
Of course, the administration will face a vociferous public campaign by chavista sympathizers pressuring it to accept Sunday's disputed result. Already, the feckless Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has backtracked from the organization's initial strong statement on behalf of a recount and now has accepted the result.
Recognition proponents will tell us the United States faces "isolation" in the region if the administration doesn't recognize Maduro (only Panama and Paraguay have joined the call for a recount) and that its supposed intransigence plays right into Maduro's hands, allowing him to whip up nationalist sentiment.
Nonsense. Those proposing such arguments fail to recognize that governments are pursuing interests. Certain countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and even Russia and China, have benefited greatly from economic ties with Venezuela under Chávez and their short-sighted view is to try and keep that spigot open.
Most citizens throughout the region, however, tend to be more appreciative of principles, such as the security and integrity of one's vote. One can be sure that, in case of a disputed election in their own country, they would hope to count on external support for an honest accounting in their own electoral processes.
Secondly, as the election just demonstrated, Maduro is not Chávez, and his capacity to whip up anything but official violence against Venezuelans protesting in the streets is extremely doubtful (Warning: graphic photos here). In short, no one should be misled by the noisemakers.
A continued firm stand on behalf of a clean election will resonate positively throughout the region, sending a strong signal to all democrats that the United States does indeed care and that intimidation and violence have no place in any democracy. It is not likely that such sentiments will sway Maduro and his Cuban advisors to accept any sort of recount, but it will certainly place the United States on the right side of the debates and confrontations to come.
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A surprising thing happened on the way to the coronation of Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the designated heir to chavismo, the movement created by the obstreperous former President Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to cancer last month. Evidently, a good number of the Venezuelan people decided that bread-and-butter issues like inflation, shortages of basic goods, electricity blackouts, and soaring street crime were more important to them than the circuses Chávez regularly supplied.
Challenger Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez last October by some 11 percentage points, narrowly missed an epic upset, losing this time to Chávez's chosen successor by a count of 50.7 to 49.1 percent of the vote.
Capriles has rejected the official tally and demanded a recount of the paper receipts of each Venezuelan vote. "We are not going to recognize the result," he said, "until every vote is counted, one by one." He has also called for peaceful street demonstrations outside the electoral council offices. In welcome developments, both the Obama administration and the Organization of American States have backed the call for an audit of the election results.
Maduro's reaction was predictable, rejecting any recount and accusing Capriles of "coup-mongering." He has no doubt calculated that a recount is more dangerous to the continuation of chavismo than trying to tackle Venezuela's myriad post-Chávez challenges while dogged with questions about his legitimacy. Not only must he address declining socio-economic conditions -- including soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world -- he must also deal with a reinvigorated opposition while attempting to manage a movement that is splintering under the weight of corruption and competing interests.
Already, Maduro has been put on notice that he is under scrutiny from his own side. Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly and long-seen as a Maduro rival within chavismo, said of the election: "These results require deep self-criticism ... Let's turn over every stone to find our faults, but we cannot put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander [Chávez] in danger."
What is clear is that Venezuela's contested election likely presages a period of political turmoil not seen in the country since 2002, when Chávez was briefly ousted from power. But it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to actively defend its regional interests. No one is advocating that the Obama administration engage in mud-slinging contests with Hugo Chávez wannabes, but neither should we remain silent on matters of principle and U.S. security.
For example, the Iranian presence in Venezuela, including the existence of a number of suspicious industrial facilities, and the prodigious use of Venezuelan territory for drug shipments to the United States and Europe have been tolerated for too long without any effective U.S. response. (Several high-ranking associates of the late President Chávez have been designated as "drug kingpins" by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Maduro's shaky standing today within Venezuela means there is increased leverage for the United States to hold the government accountable for its threats to regional stability. It is not likely Maduro will be able to withstand the pressure coming not only from the opposition and his own coalition, but from the United States as well. That can come in the form of more designations and indictments of Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking and violating sanctions against Iran, but also repeated public calls to disassociate his government from these criminal activities.
The administration must also continue to stand behind the Venezuelan opposition on matters of principle. Voters deserve a clear accounting of what transpired last Sunday. The future of their country hangs in the balance.
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True to form, the Venezuelan government and its Cuban minders have spared no effort or expense to ensure the outcome of Sunday's snap election to elect the late Hugo Chávez's chosen successor. Challenger Henrique Capriles has been game (and his singular effort to revive the fortunes of the Venezuelan opposition commendable), but in the end his lot has been to be cast as a mere prop in Venezuela's version of "casino democracy," where the house always wins.
Ironically, Capriles should privately be relieved that Chávez's appointed successor, the dour and robotic Nicolas Maduro, and not he, will inherit the ticking economic time bomb that Chávez has bequeathed his country. Most sober observers of the Venezuelan scene give the country's economy 12 months at most before the wheels start coming off. As I have written before, some may remember Chávez for his embrace of the country's marginalized, but all Venezuelans are now poised to reap the whirlwind of the balance of his legacy: soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Far from demonstrating any appreciation for the gravity of the economic situation, Maduro has indicated he only intends to dole out more of the same. In fact, even as the campaign has been taking place, the government has been pushing a new law in the rubber-stamp National Assembly that further undercuts the private sector and concentrates even more economic power in the state.
The so-called Law against Monopolies and Other Similar Practices is a capricious measure that empowers the government to confiscate any business that it deems not acting in the public interest. Yet the law would discard traditional metrics for the determination of monopolistic practices and instead leave it up to a politically appointed board to decide if a company has a "decisive domain" over the setting of prices or other market conditions. (State-owned enterprises would be exempt under the law, further tilting the playing field against the private sector.)
In other words, any successful company runs the risk of confiscation at any time by crossing the government's arbitrary line of being "too successful." And with the judicial sector also controlled by the government, private companies are left with no outlet to appeal adverse decisions.
The fall-out if such a law was to be implemented is not difficult to imagine: a further retraction of private sector activity, less production, and less opportunity for working Venezuelans. Just what the Venezuelan economy does not need at this critical juncture.
This is a far cry from the image of Nicolas Maduro that U.S. audiences were presented by the news media after he was named by Chávez as his successor. We were told the former bus driver was "pragmatic" and "likable." (Call it the Yuri Andropov Syndrome, after the soft-pedaling to the American public of the former KGB-head's supposed fondness for "Western jazz and scotch.")
Well, during this recent campaign, when the likable, moderate Maduro was not expelling additional U.S. personnel from the U.S. embassy in Caracas, accusing the United States of poisoning Hugo Chávez, or implicating former U.S. officials in attempts to assassinate either him or Capriles (depending on the day), he was making homophobic slurs about his opponent and characterizing the opposition as fascist coup-mongerers. And, at the same, planning further actions to destroy what is left of the private sector in Venezuela.
There will be those who will dismiss all this as just so much campaign bluster. They do so at risk to U.S. national interests. There is no evidence that Maduro is anything other than a deadly serious ideologue beholden to Cuba and to further pushing Hugo Chávez's destructive agenda. Consider him Chávez without the charm -- and come hell or high water he is about to be with us for another six years beginning this Sunday.
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My colleague Roger Noriega has an excellent post over at the American Enterprise Institute blog on the contentious relationship between Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, and his country's last two presidents, the husband and wife team of (the late) Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, two populists well known for their authoritarian, bullying behavior.
For my part, I am struck by the ferocity of the attacks against Pope Francis I regarding his allegedly passive behavior towards the military junta that ruled Argentina 1976-1983. (Those generals without a doubt waged as brutal a war against the violent Left as the latter waged against Argentine society.)
This line of attack was represented best in Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's high-handed, guilty-until-proven-innocent jeremiad that ran under the print headline, "Does Francis have a confession to make?" (The Post followed with a front-page story here.)
The Vatican, meanwhile, attributed the attacks to "anti-clerical left-wing elements" as "part of a campaign that's often slanderous and defamatory."
Now, of course, examining what Cardinal Bergoglio did or didn't do during that difficult period in Argentina's history is fair game. Yet, I couldn't help but think back to a mini-furor that erupted during Pope Benedict's May 2012 trip to Cuba, when an official from the U.S. government-run Radio Martí delivered an on-air commentary in which he took Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega to task for his passive behavior towards the Castro dictatorship.
According to the editorial, delivered by the station's director Carlos Garcia-Perez, "this attitude of Ortega just goes to show his political collusion with the government and his willingness to follow the official line. This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God."It ended: "Cardinal Ortega, please be faithful to the gospel you preach."
Tough words to be sure, but in light of the standard set by Mr. Robinson, one would think that Mr. Garcia-Perez would have been congratulated for calling out Cardinal Ortega for not doing enough to stand up to the abuses committed against the Cuban people by that despotic regime. But, of course, one would be wrong, because in Cardinal Bergoglio's case, it involved a right-wing dictatorship and in Cardinal Ortega's case, well...you know.
Those offended by the temerity of Mr. Garcia-Perez piled on (here, here and here). His comments were denounced as "beyond belief," "name-calling," and most fretfully, "equivalent to a U.S. government statement."
The whole affair only demonstrates how little attitudes have progressed since the late Jeane Kirkpatrick's seminal 1979 Commentary essay, in which she in part lambasted the double standard of those who directed their righteous fury towards right-wing dictatorships but suddenly became quiescent when it came to those of the left-wing variety.
In any case, the bottom line is that judging the actions of clerics operating under extremely difficult conditions -- especially from abroad -- is no subject to take on flippantly. Who can really know what is in an individual's heart and the calculations and compromises he makes in the silence of his conscience to carry out what he sees as his mission? Yet if one is determined to enter that minefield, then let's apply a single standard on which to judge that behavior. What is expected or demanded under one type of dictatorship cannot be apologized for under another.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.