Venezuela doesn’t have any friends left in Washington
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.”