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Venezuela is no Longer a Partisan Issue

By Alexandra Beech,

As flashy as the state that he represents, Florida Senator Bill Nelson blasted through Venezuela this week, predicting that Chavez would likely block the recall referendum, accusing the Venezuelan government of cavorting with Colombian rebels and of “ignoring a flourishing black market for passports and other official documents that could fall into the hands of terrorists.” Nelson, a Democratic member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, then flew off to join Kerry on his campaign trail.

While all efforts to promote democracy and justice in Latin America should be commended, other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have in recent weeks also denounced the Chavez government. Like the states that they represent, Minnesota and Indiana, their efforts have been subtle, yet equally powerful.

On March 3, a Reuters article appeared in Spanish which highlighted comments by Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman, the head of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Narcotic Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The influential Republican senator said that President Hugo Chavez was threatening the rule of law, an act which he considered “dangerous”, and asked the OAS and other Latin American countries to assume a greater role in the crisis. During a meeting in Washington, Senator Coleman said that while the US should take a cautious stance on Venezuela to avoid the perception that it is interfering in the country’s internal affairs, “I believe that the OAS and others should be very direct and aggressive in ensuring that the rule of law is followed in Venezuela,” he said. “The concern is that Chavez will seek to ignore this process, in some way avoiding it. I think that would be a terrible error,” which Coleman also characterized as “unfortunate.”

Senator Coleman is not the only Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee observing Venezuela closely. In an editorial titled “Trouble is Brewing in Latin America” in the The San Diego Union-Tribune on April 15, Indiana Senator Dick Lugar also weighed in on Venezuela. “Under Castro protégé Hugo Chavez, the economy has gone into a tailspin and the country has lurched from one political upheaval to another, most notably Chavez's brief ouster in 2002, his restoration to office by the military and the opposition-led oil strike that followed. Now, the Chavez government's use of deadly force to derail a recall petition and its arbitrary arrest of hundreds of democratic activists has led to a new crisis that brings the country one step closer to complete authoritarian rule.” Senator Lugar recommends a series of steps to restore and strengthen democracy in Latin America, including: 1.) “make fighting hunger and poverty a top priority”; 2.) promote the establishment of “clear property rights for the Latin American poor” which would allow them access to credit; 3.) “transform the Organization of American States into a more effective decision-making body that can act decisively to mitigate conflict. “ 4.) “help developing countries prepare for open trade;” 5.) “end the years of inconsistent engagement with Latin America by U.S. policy-makers.”

On Thursday, April 22, from 11:00 am until 1:30, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus of the House of Representatives will hold a member’s hearing titled “Venezuela: A Human Rights Update.” The Congressional Human Rights Caucus is “a bipartisan organization of nearly 200 House members that identifies and works to alleviate human rights abuses worldwide,” according to Congressman Frank Wolf’s website. Hosted by Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the panel of expert witnesses will include Venezuelan Philarmonic Cellist Carlos Izcarray, who was recently tortured by the National Guard during the protests that erupted after the G-15 Summit, Carlos Victor Rodriguez Cedeno, a former Venezuelan Ambassador to UNHCR, and Eric Olson, Americas Advocacy Director, Amnesty International USA. The invitation, signed by California Democratic Representative Tom Lantos, Virginia Republican Representative Frank Wolf, and Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, states that according to a recent state department report, “the government of Venezuela still does not provide for consistently implemented laws that respond to human rights violations. Extrajudicial killings, serious delays in prosecutions of human rights violations, death squads, torture and abuse of detainees, little or no tolerance for government protestors, corruption within the civilian judicial system and serious restrictions upon the freedoms of speech and press are reported by the State Department. Women, children, people with disabilities and indigenous persons especially often bear the brunt of human rights violations by physical violence and discrimination according to the Country Report.” The event reflects growing concern in Washington over recent human rights violations in Venezuela, including the illegal detainment and torture of prisoners.

Venezuela is no longer a partisan issue, as both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House of Representatives recognize the importance of Venezuela’s democracy for regional stability. While no congressman has called for direct US intervention, many are following the crisis daily, supporting the Organization of American States as it helps Venezuela to find a peaceful solution to its crisis through a constitutional referendum. Some congressmen seem concerned that ignoring current problems until they become full-fledged crises only leads to failed states. Senator Lugar smartly writes that “Haiti is only the most glaring consequence of our pattern of focusing on crises while ignoring long-term needs. Many other areas of the globe cry for attention...” The US Congress and other democratic governments must continue to seek ways to support the Venezuelan opposition as it becomes evident that Chavez will use his power to remain in power long after the constitution allows.

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