July 11, 2014

Venezuela opposition leaders call for U.S. sanctions amid simmering political, economic crises

During a forum held in Doral, Venezuelan opposition leaders called for U.S. sanctions and a broader front to challenge the 14-month-old Nicolás Maduro administration.

The United States has a moral “obligation” to impose sanctions against Venezuelan leaders accused of violating human rights and other crimes, opposition figures said Friday.

During a forum in Doral about the future of the South American nation hosted by el Nuevo Herald and the Association of Venezuelan Journalists Abroad, government critics said a sanctions bill that recently passed the House is necessary to ratchet up pressure on an administration buckling under the worst political and economic crises in decades.

“The United States, which has been a promoter of international conventions” against financial crimes and human rights violations, “has the obligation to be coherent and defend them,” said Beatrice Rangel, a former cabinet minister during the Carlos Andrés Pérez administration and the executive director of AMLA consulting.

Horacio Medina, the head of the Miami branch of the opposition coalition known as the MUD, went further, saying the U.S. government hasn’t had a coherent policy toward Latin America since the Alliance for Progress under the John F. Kennedy administration.

“Regardless of whether you agree with the targeted sanctions that are being considered, the only thing I would ask the government is that ‘For the love of God, sit down and design a policy for Latin America,’” he said to applause from the audience.

The debate comes as some are asking the United States to take a tougher stand against Venezuela after student protests that began in February led to at least 42 deaths, mass arrests and the detention of key political figures.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in May targeting individuals who committed or ordered violence, human rights violations or illicit arrests and prosecutions during the protests. Punishment would include blocking assets in the United States and denying or revoking visas.

The Obama administration contends that the sanctions are premature and play into the hands of President Nicolás Maduro — allowing him to blame the country’s troubles on the U.S. rather than his own failed policies.

However, earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told members of the Hispanic community that he backs the bill, raising hopes that it may hit the Senate floor.

Student protests over soaring violence and a faltering economy — featuring the hemisphere’s highest inflation and sporadic shortages of basic goods — turned into national demonstrations that paralyzed large swaths of the country.

Maduro has said the protests were a cover for a U.S.-backed coup attempt and accused several prominent opposition figures of mulling assassination plots. The Venezuelan Embassy in the United States declined an invitation to send a representative to the forum, held at the offices of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

The crisis comes as Venezuela’s opposition remains deeply divided and has been unable to translate its passion on the street into victory at the polls.

Among the participants at the forum was Carlos Vecchio, the national coordinator of the Voluntad Popular political party, who is facing criminal charges for his role in the demonstrations. His party’s leader, Leopoldo López, has been jailed for five months awaiting trial on similar charges. On Friday, López’s wife and family said the government is denying them their constitutional right to visit him.

Vecchio insisted that the opposition needs to work with “pro-democracy” factions within the ruling party to find a constitutional way out of the crisis before the next presidential election in 2019.

“This fight is not between the people,” he said. “The fight in Venezuela is between the people who are suffering — both government supporters and the opposition — and the corrupt elite who are in power, they’re practically a kleptocracy.”

One of the most contentious parts of the debate revolved around whether the opposition should participate in elections that many see as rigged.

Diego Arria, Venezuela’s former ambassador to the United Nations, said that going to the polls and pretending Venezuela is still a democracy only whitewashes the administration.

“We’ve been accomplices to a regime that has been establishing itself around the world as constitutional and elected,” he said. “They’ve been able to do that thanks to our participation.”

Arria and others said that unless the National Electoral Council is overhauled and voter roles are purged, the electoral results always will be questioned.

In 2005, driven by similar frustrations, the opposition boycotted the National Assembly race, handing the entire body over to the ruling party. Most analysts view the move as a mistake, but Arria said that absenteeism of more than 80 percent that year sent a powerful message. “Our problem is that we didn’t claim the victory,” he said.

The opposition also has been criticized for failing to inspire voters — particularly one-time government supporters who have become weary of the violence and economic chaos.

Medina echoed those concerns. The opposition needs a “concrete, coherent, precise and unified plan” that’s bigger than any one particular leader, he said.

Sixteen years of rule (first by the late Hugo Chávez, and now by his handpicked successor Maduro) have left many wondering whether the administration will fall under its own weight, as the problems spiral out of control.

But Rangel cautioned that countries such as the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Cuba and Haiti have lived with similar levels of dysfunction for decades.

“You never finish falling into the well,” she said of Venezuela’s chaos. “This well never ends.”

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