Venezuela doesn’t have any friends left in Wash­ing­ton

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON — Marco Ru­bio and Nancy Pelosi rarely see eye to eye.

But Pelosi, the lib­eral Demo­cratic leader from San Fran­cisco and Ru­bio, the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can from Mi­ami agree that Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro is a bru­tal dic­ta­tor.

Be­fore a vote Sun­day that could 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 to­ward Maduro in Wash­ing­ton, even among lib­eral Democrats who once praised the lead­er­ship of Maduro’s pre­de­ces­sor, Hugo Chavez, has van­ished.

Mem­bers of Congress who main­tained a di­a­logue with Caracas dur­ing Chavez’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 de­clared 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, Chavez’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 Chavez and Maduro. Any­time we met, [Chavez] 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 Chavez’s fu­neral in 2013. “Un­for­tu­nately, what Maduro is do­ing is tear­ing up the con­sti­tu­tion.”

Meeks main­tained reg­u­lar con­tact with Caracas even as Chavez 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.

The con­gress­man 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 Lopez 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 Chavez 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 de­spite Chavez’s an­tag­o­nis­tic rhetoric to­ward busi­ness in­ter­ests and the United States, he was deeply com­mit­ted to Ar­ti­cle 350 of the Venezue­lan con­sti­tu­tion, which states “the Venezue­lan peo­ple will not rec­og­nize any regime, leg­is­la­tion or au­thor­ity that runs counter to demo­cratic val- ues, 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 Sun­day vote could lead to wide-sweep­ing 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 Chavez, a hard-talk­ing so­cial­ist who nonethe­less re­spected demo­cratic norms.

“He’s not Chavez — he’s not Chavez by any means,” said Ari­zona Demo­cratic Rep. Raul 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. am­bas­sadors for “pro­mot­ing vi­o­lence.”

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

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

But the let­ter didn’t have any pos­i­tive words for Maduro, call­ing Sun­day’s con­stituent assem­bly vote “a tac­tic to con­sol­i­date power.”

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