As the wave of street protests in Venezuela creeps towards its fourth month, the Obama administration has finally begun to talk about sanctioning those who violate the human rights of legitimate street protestors. That they are now doing so can be attributed to pressure from a restive, bipartisan coalition in Congress. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, unconvinced of the merits of the administration's passive policy to date, recently passed a measure urging the administration to act. And on Wednesday, the House is scheduled to vote on a similar measure.
Last week in Mexico, Secretary of State John Kerry made the strongest statements yet on the ongoing clashes between student protestors, and Venezuelan security forces and government-armed gangs that have roiled the country since February. Referring to the government's ruse of a "dialogue" with one segment of the opposition while it jailed other opposition leaders and unleashed thugs against protestors, Kerry said, "regrettably there has just been a total failure by the government of Venezuela" to act in good faith. "What is important for the Venezuelan government now is to honor the dialogue process, and to restore the civil liberties of opposition leaders who have been unjustly imprisoned."
He added, "The power is in the hands of the government, and the government has to exercise that power in a responsible way in order to make the choices to create stability and a way forward in Venezuela."
But even as the administration has, at last, correctly diagnosed the problem, it still apparently cannot come to terms about what to do about it. "Our hope is that sanctions will not be necessary," Kerry said. Instead, the administration is hoping that "President Maduro and others will make the 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 process forward."
Not exactly telegraphing conviction.
By its own admission, the administration believes that if it acts unilaterally in Venezuela, it would "bilateralize" the conflict; that is, it would give the Venezuelan government a new drum to bang in its ongoing cacophony of anti-American rhetoric, thus diverting attention away from the protestors' grievances. That, however, is giving credence to a problem that doesn't exist. The view that sanctioning human rights observers will somehow make Venezuelans think any less of skyrocketing inflation, rampant street crime, and shortages of everything from electricity to basic consumer goods is as divorced from reality as is the Venezuelan government's belief it can beat its people into continued submission.
First, the administration tried to respond to the crisis through multilateral diplomacy -- that failed when regional governments headed for the tall grass rather than adopt meaningful action.
Next, it relied on the government stage-managed "dialogue" with members of what has been described as the "moderate" opposition. Those talks are now moribund after the opposition decided it could no longer pretend the government was taking its grievances seriously.
As the saying goes, when you exhaust all your other options, you may as well do the right thing. The crisis in Venezuela has churned for four months now because the government hasn't had to face any costs for its truculent behavior. The Obama administration has an opportunity to change that equation through the principled application of sanctions against behavior no one who wants what is best for the Americas should accept.
That is the issue in Venezuela today; not what the United States did or didn't do in Latin America over the last 100 years. President Obama is fond of saying that the origin of many of the region's controversies occurred before he was born, and that is true. But it puts him in a perfect position to act devoid of the historical baggage he ostensibly wants to shed -- it doesn't relieve him of the burden to act.
Of course, there will always be those perpetually aggrieved by the history of U.S. involvement in Latin America. But to give them veto power over what the United States should do to uphold principles we all share in the Americas is to perpetuate the problems that is in all our peoples' interests to resolve.
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