In a remarkable eruption of sanity in Washington, there is finally some pushback from Congress against the far-right and "center" on U.S. policy toward Venezuela and Latin America -- something that has not happened under the McCarthyite pall that has prevailed for years. A letter from members of Congress to President Obama last Tuesday expressed strong opposition to legislation that will impose economic sanctions against Venezuelan officials. In an election year in which there is nothing for politicians to gain from standing up to the bullies of the recently merged anti-Cuba and anti-Venezuela lobbies, this is significant. But even more striking were some of the points that the letter made about U.S. policy in the region.
The members of Congress noted that the U.S. government typically "takes European or African governments' opinions into account in those regions," and put forth the proposition that it should do the same for Latin America. Now this might seem like a no-brainer, but the White House and State Department routinely take decisions and actions on regional issues without any consultation whatsoever with other governments. Secretary of State John Kerry's initial decision to not recognize last year's presidential election results in Venezuela -- which he later reversed under pressure from South America -- comes to mind as an example. The U.S. government's numerous actions in support of the 2009 coup government in Honduras -- which were vehemently opposed in the region -- are another example of unilateral actions that caused much resentment in the hemisphere.
In a move sure to infuriate the right, the letter also called for the Obama administration to accept Venezuela's ambassador, and to appoint one for Venezuela. The Members of Congress also noted:
The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and the Organization of American States (by a 29-3 vote) have all issued statements that are in various ways supportive of the Venezuelan government and that call for the respect of the country's democratic institutions. A number of presidents and governments, including Michelle Bachelet of Chile, have publicly warned against attempts to forcibly remove the democratically elected government of Venezuela.
Again, this is an attempt to insert the views of the majority of governments in the hemisphere into the public discourse, a rarity in Congress. UNASUR issued a statement [PDF] last month that
...rejects the initiative that continues trying to impose unilateral sanctions on Venezuelan government officials, which violates the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states, and adversely affects this dialogue and is an obstacle to the Venezuelan people in overcoming their difficulties through independence, peace and democracy.
What makes this congressional letter so important is that it is the first recognition by members of Congress -- including Democratic leadership such as Jan Schakowsky (Chief Deputy Whip), John Conyers (ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee), and Jim McGovern (co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission) -- that U.S. hostility toward Venezuela is isolating Washington in the hemisphere. Of course anyone who has not been in a coma for the past 12 years should know this. But U.S. foreign policy is all about denial.
This particular initiative, to impose economic sanctions on Venezuelan government officials, comes from the far-right of the political spectrum here: an alliance of neo-conservatives and the anti-Cuba/anti-Venezuela lobby. The Obama administration opposed these sanctions in a May 8 Senate hearing on the legislation. The hearing was something of a circus, with only certified haters of Venezuela invited to testify -- not surprising because the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Robert Menendez, is a hard-liner obsessed with regime change in Cuba. (He has also been involved in a couple of influence-peddling scandals in the past year, with one of his major campaign contributors -- a Miami doctor for whom the Senator has done favors -- setting a national record of more than $20 million received from Medicare in one year.)
The split between the Obama administration and various dinosaurs in Congress mirrored a split within the opposition in Venezuela. Testifying to the Senate, the top U.S. State Department official for the hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, opposed the sanctions on the grounds that their allies in Venezuela were against them. Senators like Menendez and Marco Rubio, by contrast, were more sympathetic to those in the opposition who boycotted dialogue and sought to overthrow the government.
But this split is largely a tactical one -- at least in Washington -- and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has gone back and forth between supporting either faction of the opposition. A few weeks ago he hinted that he could possibly support the sanctions.
Washington's efforts to destabilize the government of Venezuela over the past 12 years have never been an isolated series of events but part of an overall strategy of "containment" and "rollback" in the region. To this day the foreign policy establishment here has still not accepted that the region's shift toward more independent and left governments is a permanent change, like the move away from dictatorships in the last decade of the 20th century. Of course Venezuela is a big target because it sits on the world's largest oil reserves and will therefore always be an important player in the region. But Washington would like to get rid of all of the left governments, and these people see this as a realistic intermediate to long-term goal.
For these reasons, last week's congressional letter is a breakthrough in that it recognizes that U.S. Venezuela policy is part of an overall strategy that has increasingly isolated the U.S. in the region. The U.S. does not have ambassadorial relations with Bolivia and Ecuador, as well as Venezuela, and its relations with Brazil have been at a low point for decades, far worse than during the Bush years. If these members of Congress provoke a new debate, it is one that the Obama administration -- and its allies to the right -- will surely lose.