The State of Democracy in Venezuela was the subject of a hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held Thursday in Washington, DC. Venezuela has attracted interest from U.S. politicians as numerous allegations have been made against President Hugo Chavez and as a recall referendum on his mandate approaches.
- Panelists during a hearing at the U.S. Senate on June 24th answered questions about Venezuela’s current political situation.
The meeting was convened and chaired by Senator Norm Coleman (Democrat, Minnesota), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotics. Senator Coleman had expressed an interest to "hear from the experts about the unfolding situation in Venezuela" and intended to "get to the bottom" of various allegations about Venezuela recently floating around in the international media at Thursday’s hearing.
The list of witnesses who testified at the hearing included many names familiar to those following the developments in Venezuela: Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, John Maisto, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States, Miguel Diaz, Director, Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dr. Jennifer McCoy, Director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center, Jose Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director, Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, Roger Tissot, Director of Markets and Countries Group, Latin America, PFC Energy and Dr. Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
The hearing opened with commentary by Chairman Coleman, who declared that the political situation in Venezuela represents "the single most important test of democracy in the America." He further reinforced that the United States has a "tremendous interest" in what happens in Venezuela and asserted that the presence of international observers during the August 15th Recall Referendum process will play a key role in ensuring credibility and transparency and respect for the results. Following Coleman’s opening comments, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who recently has made very critical and severe statements against the Chavez Administration, once again accused the Venezuelan government of supporting and harboring Colombian guerrilla groups. Senator Nelson additionally charged President Chavez with making statements "praising Iraqi insurgents that attack American soldiers" and "using his oil as leverage against small nations in the Caribbean" to encourage them to "oppose U.S. policies." Senator Nelson did not present any evidence to support these allegations.
Noriega concerned over opposition mayor and Sumate indictments The first of the witnesses to testify to this Committee, which also counted on the presence of Senator Christopher Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut), was Sub-Secretary Roger Noriega, a former aide to ultra-conservative Senator Jesse Helms and an outspoken critic of President Chavez. Noriega expressed his concern over alleged politically motivated detentions that have occurred in Venezuela during the past month, which include Henrique Capriles Radonsky, a Caracas municipal mayor charged with aiding the violent attack on the Cuban Embassy during the coup d’etat against President Chavez in April 2002.
Noriega also stated that the recent indictment of two directors of the organization Sumate, who are charged with conspiracy and treason for accepting funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in violation of Venezuelan law, and for utilizing these funds to conspire to overthrow the government, demands international attention. Noriega reinforced the U.S. government’s view that the National Endowment for Democracy is an independent organization that promotes democracy around the world. A closer examination of the NED, however, shows that it is funded entirely by the U.S. Congress and was created by congressional legislation in 1983. The NED has given more than $4 million to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela since President Bush came to office.
Ambassador John Maisto plugged the importance of the Organization of American States and the Carter Center in Venezuela in the peaceful and transparent solution to Venezuela’s current political crisis. In an odd political maneuver, Maisto compared President Chavez’s rejection of the NED’s funding of anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela to General Agustin Pinochet’s outrage at the NED funding organizations opposing his dictatorship at the end of the 1980s, after Pinochet had become discredited and no longer useful to advance U.S. interests. U.S.’s "dark shadow".
A brief intervention by Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd pointed out that the Bush Administration’s tacit support of the coup against President Chavez in April 2002 cast a "very dark shadow" over the U.S.’s ability to act as an honest broker in helping to resolve the political crisis in Venezuela. Dodd, along with almost all those speaking at Thursday’s hearing emphasized the ‘make or break’ role of international observers in the recall referendum process, particularly the OAS and Carter Center, and some even went so far as to state that the international observers, and not the Venezuelan electoral council, will be the ones bringing validity and credibility to the vote.
Noriega under fire
Senator Dodd also called into question Noriega’s actions preceding the recent signature repair process in Venezuela last May. Specifically, Dodd asked Noriega why he published an opinion article in several U.S. and Latin American newspapers just one day before the repair process began, which stated that the "signatures had already been obtained for the recall referendum" and that the Chavez administration would face "dire consequences" if it didn’t respect this conclusion. Noriega shrugged off the issue as a "misinterpretation" of his statement and stated that he "did not understand" the Senator’s point.
In another strange intervention, Senator Nelson questioned Ambassador Maisto on the credibility of a recent article by writer Heinz Dietrich, whom he referred to as a "Chavista political leader", which allegedly stated that the referendum is an "all or none" proposition that must be won by any means. Nelson further said that the article in question declared that, "Chavez must defeat the enemies" and listed the Democratic Charter of the OAS as an "enemy." Maisto, the US Ambassador to the OAS dismissed the allegations as "preposterous."
Dr. Jennifer McCoy, who has been the leading Carter Center representative in Venezuela during the past year, pointed out that after a recent presentation from Smartmatic, the company contracted to provide electronic voting machines for the upcoming referendum, she and her colleagues were "very impressed" with the security measures and the functioning of the machines. She additionally disputed Senator’s Nelson’s comments about reports of identification cards belonging to opposition members being confiscated by military forces in Venezuela to prevent them from voting, and stated that the Carter Center has not had any reports at all about such confiscations.
Venezuela could teach Florida a lesson about transparent voting Despite Senator Nelson’s adversary tone towards the Venezuelan government, after McCoy’s convincing testimony, he declared that if the Smartmatic machines, which provide paper receipts, are successful in the referendum vote, "maybe Venezuela will teach Florida something." In the last presidential elections in the U.S., that State of Florida came under heavy fire for badly functioning election equipment, disenfranchisement of blacks, and widespread fraud in electoral registries and polls across the state.
The U.S. has no moral authority to promote the rule of law Human Rights Watch Director for the Americas, Jose Miguel Vivanco, who has been in the public spotlight over the past week in Venezuela due to his harsh criticism of a new judicial reform law in Venezuela, stressed that "Venezuela is a Democracy, although a fragile one." Vivanco further proclaimed that the press in Venezuela "has been able to express its strong views without restriction." Finally, Vivanco boldly stated that "the ability of the U.S. to advocate for democracy in Venezuela was severely hurt in 2002 when the Bush Administration chose to blame Chavez for his own ouster rather than unequivocally denouncing the coup. In addition, the Abu Grahib scandal has undermined the administration’s moral authority when it comes to promoting the rule of law abroad."
With regard to Vivanco’s statements on the Venezuelan National Assembly’s possible appointment of Supreme Court justices who are friendly to the government, Senator Dood pointed out that the Constitution of the United States instructs that it is up to the Congress to determine the size of the court. "This is not unprecedented", he said adding that he agreed with Vivanco with the inconvenience of the timing of such appointments.
By far the most critical testimony came from Miguel Diaz, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, who alleged that the Chavez administration is "selectively arresting opposition leaders, torturing some members of the opposition and encouraging, if not directing, Bolivarian Circles to beat up members of congress and voters with impunity." The ex-CIA employee also avowed that the "Chavez government lies shamelessly" and that "not all who come to power through elections are democrats." Without producing any evidence to support these unsubstantiated allegations, Diaz went on to state that that he believes that Chavez "poses a great threat, now more than ever, and the community of democracy should take him seriously." Diaz clamored for the U.S. to take a more proactive role in Latin America and to let Venezuelan electoral authorities know that "the eyes of the world are on them" and that "any perception of wrongdoing will result in bloodshed." He further referred to those supporting Chavez as "desperate."
"Venezuela is the Saudi Arabia of Latin America"
The hearing on Venezuela concluded with Roger Tissot, an expert on the oil industry, and economist Mark Weisbrot. Tisso pointed out that Venezuela is the "Saudi Arabia of Latin America" and that the major oil-producing nation would like to become the energy supplier of choice for the Western Hemisphere. In that sense, Tissot foresaw no threat to oil supply from Venezuela and in fact reinforced that the Venezuelan government depends on its oil revenue to advance its political project. He highlighted Venezuela’s strategic geographical location by pointing out that it takes only four days for a Venezuelan oil tanker to reach the U.S. coast off the Gulf of Mexico. He mentioned Venezuelan owned Citgo Petroleum’s important role in the distribution on gasoline and oil derivatives in the U.S.
Mark Weisbrot wrapped up Thursday’s hearing by asserting that Venezuela is a democracy, despite attempts to frame it otherwise, and he emphasized the U.S. government’s ongoing support of an anti-democratic opposition movement that led a coup d’etat in 2002. "Our government also undermines democracy in Venezuela by disregarding the rule of law in that country, and encouraging the opposition to do the same. It must be recalled that the Bush Administration, alone in this hemisphere, initially endorsed the military coup in April 2002," Weisbrot said. The Washington, DC-based economist underlined the fact that the Bush administration made no attempt to repair relations with the Chavez government after it was restored following the 2002 coup. "Rather it went on to tacitly endorse the oil strike — in spite of the fact that it was preparing for a war in the Middle East, likely to reduce oil supplies, at the time. In December 2002 the White House supported the opposition’s unconstitutional demand for early elections," Weisbrot said.
U.S. financing of opposition groups violates law
Weisbrot highlighted the critical role that U.S. financing of anti-Chávez groups has played in the ongoing political crisis and called for the Congress to investigate the issue further.
Referring to the NED’s financing of groups such as Sumate, which violate Venezuelan law, Weisbrot clarified, "we do not allow foreign financing of electoral campaigns in the United States. Clearly we should not insist on violating the laws of other countries, and their sovereignty and democracy, in ways that we would not permit here."Noriega encouraged disrespect for constitutional processes Echoing Senator Dodd’s comments to Secretary Noriega, the economist criticized the Bush administration’s alleged encouragement of the opposition not to respect constitutional processes. "Before the results of the signature gathering process were decided last month, Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, declared that «the requisite number of people supported the petition» and warned of «dire consequences» if Venezuela’s National Electoral Council did not arrive at the same conclusion."
Weisbrot reminded the senators thatthe Venezuelan opposition only agreed in May of 2003 to pursue an electoral strategy "after all extra-legal means of overthrowing the government — including a military coup and several oil strikes — had been exhausted."
Undemocratic Venezuelan media
Weisbrot additionally called attention to the role of the media in Venezuela as the "most fiercely partisan opponents of the government" pointing out that even so, the media has never been censored by the Chávez government. "A Los Angeles Times reporter interviewed one of the country’s most respected pollsters, from the firm Datanalisis, Jose Antonio Gil. The firm’s polls are often cited in the US press. According to the L.A. Times, he could see only one way out of the political crisis surrounding President Hugo Chavez. «He has to be killed,» he said, using his finger to stab the table in his office... «He has to be killed»... It is hard to imagine an opposition of this type in the United States — they would probably be labeled as terrorists here"
The economist charged the Venezuelan media with abandoning the norms of modern journalism, and of becoming organs of a movement to de-legitimize the government. "Two months ago one of Venezuela’s most influential newspapers actually used a doctored version of a New York Times article to allege that the Chavez government was implicated in the Madrid terrorist bombing."
Weisbrot criticized efforts to portray the Chavez government as anti-democratic. He pointed out that although Chavez has friendly relations with Fidel Castro, "clearly Venezuela is nothing like Cuba." He reminded that the Brazilian government of Lula da Silva, and his party have deeper and longer-standing relations with Castro and Cuba, but it is not a reason for major controversy. "The Bush Administration and Brazil have agreed to disagree on this issue, and that seems to be the end of this dispute," he added.
"Anyone who calls the Venezuelan government «authoritarian» is in need of a dictionary, or perhaps needs to see the place. I was there during the oil strike in December 2002 and witnessed the government’s response to the destruction of its economy by less than one percent of the labor force; the management and some of the workers in the oil industry. They were not striking for better wages or benefits, but to overthrow the government. Even in the United States, a strike of this nature would be illegal."
Weisbrot acknowledged human rights violations in Venezuela, although he said that the situation has not gotten any worse during the Chavez presidency. "It is true that there are human rights abuses in Venezuela, but these are not different from those in the rest of Latin America, and I have not heard any reputable human rights organization argue that they have worsened under the five years of Chavez’ government. Nor have they argued that the government has engaged in any systematic repression of political dissent," he said.
Judiciary has never been independent in Venezuela
The economist also spoke on Venezuela’s National Assembly’s approval of a law allowing the government to add 12 new judges to the Supreme Court. He said that although this would certainly alter the balance of the court in favor of the government, that Supreme Court is the same one that decided that the people who carried out the military coup of 2002 could not be prosecuted. "In the United States, I am pretty sure that our Congress would use its power to impeach a Supreme Court that made such a ruling," he said. Weisbrot added that as long as the country remains deeply polarized, it will be very difficult to achieve a truly independent judiciary.
Normalize relations with Venezuela
Weisbrot further stated that the polarization in Venezuela is a very serious problem, and that Chavez is a polarizing figure who has contributed to the problem. But he urged the U.S. Congress not make it worse by allowing the U.S. government to take sides. "We should normalize our relations with Venezuela, which is a democracy and has never posed any threat to US security; it has reached out several times to our government since the coup — only to be rebuffed."
The economist concluded by saying that the first step towards normalizing relations would be to stop funding the recall effort and people who have participated in a military coup against Venezuela’s elected government.
The written testimony from the U.S. Senate hearing can been read at:www.senate.gov/ foreign/ hearings/2004/hrg040624p.html