U.S. diplomat avoids calling Venezuelan election ‘illegitimate’ even as fraud evidence grows

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was taking a few days off last week when the U.S. sanctioned 13 Venezuelan officials ahead of a Sunday election widely seen as fraudulent.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was taking a few days off last week when the U.S. sanctioned 13 Venezuelan officials ahead of a Sunday election widely seen as fraudulent. AP

The top State Department official in charge of Latin America declined Wednesday — even when pressed — to call a Venezuelan election “illegitimate,” studiously avoiding the harsh rhetoric espoused by the White House.

When Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio asked Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, if the vote for a new legislative body with nearly unfettered power was fraudulent — as growing evidence showed Wednesday — Palmieri deflected.

“The election Sunday was a flawed attempt to undermine democratic institutions in Venezuela,” Palmieri said at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing. “We support the democratically elected National Assembly in its efforts to promote an enduring, peaceful solution to the crises in Venezuela.”

His refusal to call the results illegitimate came three days after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley deployed the word. The White House, National Security Council and Treasury Department then branded President Nicolás Maduro a “dictator” and referred to his government as a “dictatorship” that could be hit with escalating U.S. sanctions.

Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cast Sunday’s election as “illegitimate” during a news conference Tuesday. His diplomats, though, avoided the term.

Critics have argued going hard after Maduro’s government is counterproductive because it gives Maduro an anti-U.S. cause to rally supporters.

“Impose all the sanctions you want!” Maduro said in a televised speech Monday. “The Venezuelan people have decided to be free, and I’ve decided to be the president of a free people.”

That hasn’t deterred the White House. President Donald Trump has vowed “strong and swift” economic sanctions against Venezuela.

But those sanctions have yet to materialize. And in an interview published late Tuesday by Spanish news agency EFE and cited by Rubio, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America Michael Fitzpatrick said the U.S. wants “dialogue” with Maduro’s government.

“We respect the official government of Venezuela and of President Maduro at this time,” Fitzpatrick said.

Venezuelan state-run television pointed Wednesday to Fitzpatrick’s statement as a defense of Maduro’s government.

Antonio Mugica, Chief Executive Officer and Director of Smartmatic, speaks during a news conference in London on August 1, 2017. Mugica says the turnout figures in Venezuela's Constituent Assembly election were "tampered with."

Tillerson, who took a few days off last week as the U.S. sanctioned 13 members of Maduro’s government, said Tuesday the administration is still considering “what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future — and wants to leave of his own accord — or we can return the government processes back to their constitution.”

“The United States addresses our deep concern over the Venezuelan government’s decision to return opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma to prison,” Tillerson said. “Their arrest comes two days after the Maduro regime’s illegitimate election for a constitutional assembly, which provoked even more violence in that country on the streets.”

The difference in tone between the secretary and other State Department leaders is an example of the often cautious language used by career diplomats and the words of non-politicians like Tillerson, a longtime oil-industry executive.

Tillerson did not address the Treasury Department’s sanctions against Maduro on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the Treasury Department confirmed it is evaluating all options but did not offer additional details.

The mixed signals from the administration annoyed Rubio, a leading force behind steeper Venezuela sanctions.

“So, just to be clear,” Rubio asked Palmieri at the hearing, “is it the position of the administration that the vote that occurred on Sunday is illegitimate?”

Palmieri repeated the results were “flawed.” Again Rubio asked. Again Palmieri deflected, though each time he inched closer to Rubio’s position.

“I know the process was flawed,” Rubio said, taking Palmieri to task. “The outcome is this new constituent assembly. There cannot be a legitimate National Assembly and a legitimate constituent assembly. If the National Assembly is the only legitimate entity, the constituent assembly by definition is illegitimate.”

“I take your point,” Palmieri conceded. “Yes, sir.”

“One of our challenges in foreign policy, whether it be in Venezuela or elsewhere in the world, is sometimes we just won’t call it what it is,” Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez chimed in. “An invasion is an invasion of Ukraine — it’s not usurpation, it’s an invasion. And illegitimacy of a dictatorship, which now the administration has recognized the Maduro government as a dictatorship, which is something I applaud, is an illegitimate government.”

About an hour earlier, the chief executive of Smartmatic, the company that provides Venezuela with its voting software and technology, said Sunday’s results had been inflated by at least 1 million votes. The government dismissed the accusation as “baseless.”

Daugherty reported from Washington. El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed from Miami/