Venezuela doesn’t have any friends left in Washington

Marco Rubio and Nancy Pelosi rarely see eye to eye.

But both the liberal Democratic leader from San Francisco and the conservative Republican senator from Miami agree on one thing: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is a brutal dictator.

“The President of Venezuela, to me, looks like he’s a thug and we just can’t let them exploit poor people in the country ... with a message that looks like he’s their champion,” House Minority Leader Pelosi said.

Ahead of a vote Sunday that could dramatically change Venezuela’s constitution in favor of Maduro, the tough talk from Pelosi and other liberal Democrats now mirrors the rhetoric of Miami Republicans who have long opposed Caracas.

As a result, any sympathy towards Maduro in Washington, even among liberal Democrats who once praised the leadership of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, has vanished.

Members of Congress who maintained a dialogue with Caracas during Chávez’s administration no longer speak to Maduro.

The leadership of the Washington-based Organization of American States is demanding free and fair elections.

And the White House has declared that the U.S. “will take strong and swift economic actions” if the Maduro regime goes ahead with the vote Sunday.

For pro-Venezuela politicians and diplomats in Washington, Chávez’s commitment to the country’s 1999 constitution was a redeeming characteristic for a leader who trafficked in anti-U.S. rhetoric during his 14 years in power.

“I’ve known Chávez and Maduro. Anytime we met, [Chávez] would always go into his pocket and bring out the constitution of Venezuela,” said U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat and the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chávez’s funeral in 2013. “Unfortunately, what Maduro is doing is tearing up the constitution.”

Meeks maintained regular contact with Caracas even as Chávez accused the U.S. of orchestrating a failed 2002 coup and referred to former President George W. Bush as “the devil” in 2006.

But Maduro’s decision to annul the Venezuelan legislature in March, and widespread protests that have led to the deaths of more than 100 people, are too much to reconcile.

“He doesn’t seem to me to be the same guy that I knew when he was the leader of the Parliament back when I first met him with Hugo Chávez or the individual I spoke with briefly after he became president,” Meeks said.

He added that his conversation with Maduro in 2013 was about “getting diplomatic relationships going again.”

But something changed between 2013 and 2015, when Maduro arrested opposition leader Leopoldo López and began suspending democratic norms.

“It seems to me at some point, I don’t know what happened, that he was not interested in having further dialogue, he’s not the same guy,” Meeks said. “Something has to happen to change what has been going on for years now. The lines have been crossed and there’s no attempt at trying to have reconciliation.”

That wasn’t the case years ago, when Chávez enjoyed amicable relations with U.S. officials appointed by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.

“The name of the game was to engage,” said John Maisto, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 1997 to 2000.

Maisto said that despite Chávez’s antagonistic rhetoric toward business interests and the United States, he was deeply committed to Article 350 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states that “the Venezuelan people will not recognize any regime, legislation or authority that runs counter to democratic values, principles and guarantees, or undermines human rights.”

Protesters, including a man who attacked government buildings with a helicopter in June, have said Maduro is disregarding Article 350.

“The current regime is blatantly violating the constitution by not having local elections, by not having referenda ... by trampling separation of powers and the non-recognition of the legislature,” Maisto said. “They are crossing a red line.”

The Sunday vote could lead to wide sanctions from the White House.

While liberal Democrats in Washington still oppose sweeping economic sanctions on Venezuelan oil imports, there is a sense that Maduro is an autocrat compared to Chávez, a hard-talking socialist who nonetheless respected democratic norms.

“He’s not Chávez, he’s not Chávez by any means,” said Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva, one of 14 liberal Democrats who signed a letter in May 2014 urging then President Barack Obama to accept Maduro’s offer of restoring diplomatic relationships months after Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats for “promoting violence.”

“Maduro ... as he hardens, he separates himself more and more from that populist image that Chávez had, the democratic image, which is not good,” Grijalva said.

Despite the Venezuelan government spending $1.3 million to lobby Congress in 2017, no one is offering a hint of a kind word towards Maduro.

“I’m very concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation, the crackdown of political opposition and the crackdown on civil liberties and freedoms,” said Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who also signed the May 2014 letter.

McGovern, like most liberal Democrats and some Republicans, doesn’t want to impose oil sanctions on Caracas and prefers a diplomatic solution negotiated by Venezuela’s neighbors and Pope Francis, but said, “I’m not a big fan of Maduro.”

On Friday, nine congressional Democrats, including McGovern, sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arguing that mediation led by Uruguay and the Caribbean is preferable to sanctions on Caracas.

“We would point out that U.S. unilateral sanctions in effect since 2015 have done nothing to improve the political situation in the country,” the letter reads. “Instead, they were successfully exploited by the government to stoke nationalist resentment against U.S. imperialism.”

But the letter didn’t have any positive words for Maduro, calling Sunday’s constituent assembly vote “a highly unpopular move seen by many as a tactic to consolidate power.”

Meeks also said that any economic sanctions on Venezuela should be done in concert with other countries in the region like Colombia, and that Trump should meet with the leaders of Latin American countries to make a strong multilateral stand against Maduro.

“As a result of his actions the people of Venezuela suffer,” Meeks said.

Pelosi agrees with that sentiment, and hopes that more people in the U.S. will pay attention to the situation in Venezuela if Maduro gets his way and rewrites the constitution after Sunday’s vote.

“I’m hoping that ... the American people would see what’s happening to undermine the system of democracy there,” Pelosi said. “I was in Venezuela a few years ago in the previous administration, which we thought was really bad, and now this is worse.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

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