For years, President Obama stood by and did nothing as Venezuela’s leaders wrecked that country’s economy and democracy. Now that the regime is in a death spiral, Obama may actually make things worse by buying time for the corrupt leaders in Caracas who have looted the country and transformed an old ally into a new threat.
The administration “is working to improve relations [with Venezuela], driven by concern that upheaval there could destabilize the region,” according to a Bloomberg article on Monday describing what it called a “charm offensive.” One of the reasons for this strategy is preventing Venezuela from becoming “a failed narcostate” that “has the potential to affect countries all over the region.”
“The United States has said many times we would like to have a normal relationship with Venezuela,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on July 20. “And, we have reached out in an effort to try to change the dialogue...” Indeed, one of Kerry’s most senior advisers, Counselor of the Department Ambassador Thomas Shannon, has met with Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro several times since April.
Many Venezuelan democrats were shocked when Shannon traveled to Haiti in May for a private meeting with Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly. Published reports say he is under investigation by U.S. federal prosecutors for being a cocaine kingpin.
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Last year, Cabello literally drove opposition leader Leopoldo López to jail on trumped charges, and he is responsible for stripping democratic congresswoman María Corina Machado of her assembly seat. The fact that Cabello also has been implicated in drug trafficking, which affects the security and well-being of the American people, makes it even more inexplicable that a career U.S. diplomat considers him a credible interlocutor.
To justify this “charm offensive,” administration officials have assured observers in Congress that they are pressing for national assembly elections, urging the release of political prisoners and hoping to head off a bloody meltdown. Thus far, the strategy has failed on all counts.
Elections have been scheduled for December, but the ruling party is loading the dice by excluding opponents — including Machado — from the ballot. López and many other opposition leaders remain in prison. And blood has been running in the streets of Caracas for years, the fault of a regime that destroyed the professional police, dismantled the independent courts and deploys violence as a political weapon. None of these problems will be improved by placating the regime that caused them.
President Obama frequently quotes the mantra, “If you want to make peace you don’t talk to your friends, you talk to your enemies” — usually failing to credit Israeli hero Moshe Dayan for that counsel. The problem is that the president starts out by refusing to lead, which has the effect of empowering U.S. enemies. Then, confronted with a more potent foe, he insists that he has no choice but accommodation.
Some say this explains Obama’s strategy for transforming Iran into a more powerful interlocutor in the Middle East. And that certainly describes his decision to pursue “a normal relationship” with the hostile, destructive regime Venezuela.
It’s time for the Obama administration to do the right things in Venezuela. It should denounce Maduro’s repression and rally regional neighbors to insist on an end to political persecution and rigged elections. Obama should let U.S. prosecutors do their jobs by exposing narcotrafficking, money laundering and theft by Venezuelan leaders. The U.S. Treasury should move to freeze the accounts of Cabello’s corrupt cronies and return those assets once a democratic government is elected to rebuild the country.
U.S. diplomats should fully disclose what our law-enforcement agencies have discovered about the destabilizing role of the narcostate in Venezuela in sowing mayhem and corruption in Colombia, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and beyond. It is time for straight talk about the staggering corruption of a lawless regime that has looted Venezuela’s treasury and state-run oil company.
Yes, governments make peace with their enemies. But, right now, the United States has some work to do with its friends. Rather than saving Maduro, Cabello and their henchman from themselves, U.S. diplomats should rally the region to help decent Venezuelan democrats reclaim their country.
Roger F. Noriega was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs (2001–05). He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.